Stephen Sheppard

C.R.O Specialist

Optimising online checkout processes is an essential tool in any optimiser’s armoury. Regardless of paid search performance, landing page bounce rates or indeed the add-to-cart success, for an e-commerce business to make money, it must have a checkout process that converts visitors to customers.

So where can we look for ideas to make e-commerce checkouts more efficient at conversion? Well, a good place to start is with the offline “checkout” process; despite the exponential growth in online commerce, the vast majority of us still continue to transact with offline stores. And this habit is far more ingrained in us than buying online.

So what advantages do e-commerce stores have in converting visitors to customers? And what perhaps can we learn from our offline brothers to optimise that conversion?

Convenience & Speed

The Kings of the High Street have long known the importance of convenience. Retailers of certain types cluster together as they understand that they need to be where their likely customers are, and often they share very similar customer types to their competitors.

In the e-commerce world, convenience is already a substantial advantage over bricks and mortar, with the possibility of purchases being made from virtually anywhere in the world at any time. But where e-commerce (generally) lags horribly behind its non-virtual counterpart is in checkout speed.

In reality, it is an unfair comparison, as e-commerce stores selling physical goods must necessarily go through the process of asking for delivery information which offline retailers do not. Plus the lack of “contactless” payment for e-commerce vendors puts them in the unusual position of being technologically behind bricks and mortar. But unfortunately, prospective customers care little for the perceived restrictions of internet shopping and continue to demand everything faster and smoother than before. So how can we achieve this?

Avoid unnecessary steps, particularly on Mobile – these visitors are time-poor and therefore consider dropping upsell steps that they aren’t likely to have time to consider fully.

Persist logins wherever safe to do so – this keeps visitors’ details available the next time they shop with you, giving the perception of a faster process; but be sure to ask if their device is “trusted” (i.e. personal & not public) before doing so

Keep page weight to an absolute minimum – slow-loading pages at this stage, (particularly with personal details being exchanged) will lead to nervousness and abandonment so minify your code, compress your images and try to restrict any blocking scripts if at all possible.

Pricing Clarity

If you don’t know what something costs, then there’s a very high probability that you won’t commit to buying it. Plus if you find that something is now more expensive than you thought it was going to be, there’s a very high probability that the result will be the same. So we can say with some certainty that pricing clarity matters, regardless of how you sell.

But this is an area where offline retailers almost always have the upper-hand. The offline advantage is in part again due to not having to talk about delivery (and therefore the costs associated with it), but as before, this matters little to consumers whose expectations do not change – they want (and need) to know what the total cost of their transaction will be.

So what can we learn from offline retailers in what is one of their particular areas of strength?
Make the price of the product big and clear – whether on a product page, a basket page or a pre-payment order review page, it has to stand out as it is a huge decision-making factor and lack of clarity will result in abandonments

Don’t hide any charges – think about going into a small retailer (newsagents are a good example) which add an extra 50p levy for making a card payment; you aren’t happy about it, but there’s almost always a very visible sign to make you aware of it. For e-commerce, this extends to shipping as well – make the statement as soon as possible and give the visitor time to process it before they get too attached the product-only price

If it’s free, then shout loudly about it. Furniture retailers are probably the best at this, using enormous posters on their street-facing windows highlighting free delivery, or interest-free credit; so if you offer it, make sure your visitors know well before they get to that section of your checkout process, and you will see conversion benefits.

Information Exchange

The principle of information exchange is just that; an exchange. If a business wants something from a consumer, then they have to be willing to give something back in return. And the perceived value of that “thing” to the consumer must balance with their perception of the value of the “thing” they are giving to the business.

For offline retailers, this often comes in the guise of exchanging personal data (email address, for example) for a discount on the next purchase. In comparison, the e-commerce retailer almost always requires an email address to complete a purchase but very rarely offers any direct incentive to subscribe to a mailing list. Now, this is a lesson in itself perhaps, but the principle of information exchange extends much further in e-commerce, and in particular in the checkout process.

Offer a guest checkout – it usually requires the same information as a registration (with the exception of a password), but potential customers generally despise being forced to “register” and see guest checkout as a fairer information exchange; they get to make their purchase with no constant email bombardment afterwards.

Clear, explanatory error messaging – if a visitor makes a mistake in a field, tell them where the mistake occurred and how to correct it. This may not seem like an “exchange”, but you are asking the user to do something differently, so if they cannot work out what they need to change, chances are they will give up. So the exchange represented is repeated effort on behalf of the visitor with a reassurance that this will be the last time they need to do it.

Progress bars which actually show progress (surprising how many I’ve seen don’t reflect the journey accurately). I’m sure you’ve seen them on many sites to highlight what step you’re on, which steps have already been completed, and how many are left. Again, may not seem like an obvious “exchange” but think about what it’s like without a progress bar; the visitor has no idea what’s coming, and therefore they feel like they are putting in more effort to help the business than the business is in helping them. Let your users know what’s coming, and in exchange, you’ll get more patience from them.

Up- & Cross-selling

Finally, we come to something that an e-commerce checkout process does better than (most) offline retailers; prompting additional purchases. But there are still some valuable lessons to be learned from the offline experience. For most retailers, up- & cross-selling is about increasing average order value; with limited opportunities to sell to a consumer, the aim is to maximise what can be made from them.

The difference between offline and online retailers is generally in where the up & cross-selling occurs, and what is up or cross-sold. For offline retailers, the up-sell tends to be more prominent than the cross-sell, utilising 3 for 2, or buy 1 get 1 free offers to encourage consumers to purchase more of the same (or similar) items. For online retailers, the focus is often on cross-sell, using data from other purchasers to promote items that “people like you” also bought.

Also, the majority of bricks and mortar retailers do their up-selling at the product stage – there is signage all around the item in question promoting the 3 for 2 deal, for example. This is because they recognise the difficulty of increasing a visitor’s basket value when they reach the point of payment. But contrary to this, e-commerce stores almost always try to cross-sell items during the checkout phase, which can run the risk of losing the sale entirely.

So what does this mean for checkout process optimisation?

Start your cross-selling early. Once an item has been added to the basket, use the confirmation prompt to offer the visitor a complimentary item; they may not go for it straight away, but introducing the idea early and away from the point of payment reduces the likelihood of the “No” gut reaction that most of us have.

Offer a “final opportunity” in the checkout process – you’ve introduced the idea earlier, and now comes the clincher; if you’re willing to provide a small discount for the increased basket size too, this can help to edge your AOV up over time.

Don’t rule out more traditional up-sell – segments of your visitors may be more amenable to buying more of the same (or similar) products rather than buying an entirely different product, so look to trial 3 for 2 style up-sells as well as the cross-sell options.

Security & Confidence

This is almost a non-issue for bricks and mortar stores, but it couldn’t be more of an issue for the e-commerce world. And “solutions” to this issue for e-commerce stores are all too often superficial, stating that the addition of some padlock icons here and there is enough to convince someone you’re secure. But if you compare this to the non-virtual world, would you give out your credit card details to a stranger in the street just because they were wearing a padlock badge? I think not.

Offline retailers are afforded a certain confidence as a physical location, staff uniforms and swanky POS systems are all there to reassure consumers of their security, but they also employ other subtle ways of reassurance. Tills are often marked with the payment cards that are accepted, display areas behind the till-points regularly sport posters on “no quibble” returns policies and even having staff with a cheery and pleasant demeanour can instil confidence in wavering customers.

Now if we transfer this into e-commerce, the routes to a successful checkout process seem less rocky. Security should be a constant message. As with up-selling, don’t just wait until the checkout process to talk about it, particularly if you run a small, relatively unknown store; highlight your SSL certificate, point out who secures your payment gateway and wear those badges proudly on all pages. This way, a visitor reaching the checkout process has already picked up on all of those indications of security and will proceed confidently.

Don’t hide your returns policy. Knowing that an item can be easily returned if not suitable can be of great comfort to an indecisive shopper; why do you think bricks and mortar retailers plaster it behind their tills? Put that message out early, and include it prominently on your payment page, to prevent any last-minute deviations.

Offer to talk to your visitors – whether through live chat or over the phone, present visitors with alternative means of transacting with you; talking is often very reassuring for visitors, particularly if the product is complex or expensive. And even showing a willingness to do so gives off a positive impression.

Offline and online checkout processes are hugely different beasts, but despite the growth of the latter and the shrinking of the former, your local department store can still teach us digital folk a few things about getting it right. So if you’re looking to improve your online checkout, be sure to look at all retailers, not just those that operate in e-commerce.