Beating the checkout blues

Your online store is a good example of the breed. You’ve got good products at good prices, the site navigation is straightforward, the product information is rich, appropriate, and easy to find, and everyone likes the clean, uncluttered visual design of the site. So why do more than half of your customers abandon their full shopping carts?

Depending on which research report you read, roughly 25% to 75% of online shoppers abandon their shopping carts before consummating the deal. Despite the disparity in numbers, all the research firms agree on one thing: that’s way too many.

There are plenty of reasons why people back out of an online purchase. Some people just change their mind like they do in "offline" stores. But unfortunately, many customers bail simply because the store checkout process is too confusing, intrusive, or tedious. The online stores that fall into this category have failed to follow one of the cardinal rules of business: Make it easy for people to give you their money.

Let’s examine a few common checkout mistakes. Each one of these problems acts as a barrier to the customer placing an order, and therefore the closing of a sale.

The Marketing Info Snare

Some sites require their customers to register before allowing them to place an order. Companies do this to learn more about their customers and compile marketing data for reuse or resale. This is a clear case of misplaced priorities. In the bricks & mortar world, no store, from 7-11 to Bloomingdale’s, requires their customers to register before allowing them to make a purchase, and with good reason! It comes down to a simple choice: would you rather compile marketing data or make a sale?

Not that you should stop asking for information from your customers. You just shouldn’t force it upon them—it could nix the sale, and it might make some customers think twice about dealing with you at all. Generally, it’s more effective to use the carrot than the stick: if you’d like your customers to register with your site, make it clear that it’s their choice, but also give them a reason to fill out the form. The reason could be a contest, a free newsletter, credit towards their next purchase, whatever.

Similarly, if your registration form asks for non-required information, make it clear that those data fields are optional. Then reward customers who take the time to fill them out. It’s critical to recognize that your customers’ time is valuable to them, and that their information is valuable to you. Also, be clear about your intentions and be careful what you ask for—according to Forrester Research, only 6% of consumers trust how Web sites use their personal information.

The Mystery Grand Total

Customers are often uncomfortable filling out forms and supplying a credit card number before they know the total cost of their purchase (including shipping charges and tax), yet most online stores demand they do just that. This is in striking contrast to the way things work in the real world: no retail store expects customers to hand over their credit cards before telling them how much they have to pay.

Instead of keeping your customers in the dark, assume they are intelligent, busy people who are interested in making an informed purchase. The cost of the transaction is a critical piece of information in such a situation, so give your customers the grand total up front, with minimal data entry—a zip code for example. Again, be clear about why you’re asking for their information: "If you enter your zip code here, we’ll estimate tax and shipping costs for you automatically."

The Exact Syntax Hoop

Many online stores place seemingly arbitrary constraints on how information must be entered, from the layout of a phone number to the characters used for dates. One especially vexing example is when sites require their customers to enter their credit card number without using spaces or dashes. If your customer is moments away from giving you a boatload of cash, why be picky about how they give you their credit card number?

Look at it this way: If you ran a bricks & mortar store, would you require your customers to hand you their credit card using their left hand only? Of course not. But forcing people to enter their credit card number in an unusual, counter-intuitive format, such as without dashes or spaces, is the same thing.

An unfamiliar credit card number format is problematic for other reasons:

  • It’s harder for your customer to enter and verify for accuracy
  • It doesn’t match the way the number is printed on the card
  • It’s inconsistent with how people write the number on printed forms

If your goal is to close the sale with an accurate, valid credit card number, then don’t make it difficult or confusing for your customers to enter their number correctly. Instead, allow them to enter the number as it’s shown on the card (with spaces) or, better yet, let them enter the number any way they want—your system can put it into whatever format it needs after the fact.

Removing the Barriers

Are these trivial examples? Yes and no. A website full of little annoyances like these can feel like death by a thousand paper-cuts to your customers. How many little hassles will they tolerate before they jump ship for your competitor’s site? Do you really want to know?

Every substandard interaction you introduce to your store is a barrier that lies between your customers and a completed transaction with you. If you’re a businessperson who sells online-or anywhere else for that matter-it’s worth spending the extra time, money, and effort required to remove the barriers and nuisances from your checkout process to make it easy for people to give you their money.

Wayne Greenwood

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