With the recession hitting high-street sales hard, many retail businesses are turning to online sales as the main income generator. In fact, the Office for National Statistics in March 2011, reported that the non-seasonally adjusted average weekly value of internet retail sales in February 2011 was £474 million, approximately 9.0 per cent of total retail sales.

This percentage looks set to rapidly increase to over 10 per cent by 2014, firmly establishing the UK online retail market as one of the largest in the developed world.

Failed transactions

With online retail sales proving to be vital to many high-street brands, it has never been more important to create an effective website. When a site is poorly built and designed it dramatically reduces the customer experience. Many customers drop out of the buying process, not because they don’t want to buy a product but because they simply are unable to.

Research firm, Marketing Sherpa has recently suggested that 59 per cent of customers who start the check-out process online fail to complete it. The reason for this high number of incomplete transactions is because online retailers constantly create barriers. Customers are asked for information they don’t need to give, don’t want to give or simply don’t see why they should give.

Websites tend to ask users to create yet another username and password. It will ask them for a telephone number – which a sales assistant would never ask for in a high-street store, and request a billing address and delivery address as if it is normal for these to be different. Customers don’t want this hassle. They just want to check out and buy.

Retailers do not have to look at innovatively re-designing the site’s buying processes; just simply make it work effectively.

Going beyond the shopping cart

A great customer experience goes beyond just the shopping cart and should enhance the overall brand. A customer may start their journey on the website but actually buy in a store or vice versa. Retailers need to monitor all customer touch points that feature the organisation’s brand and look at how to engage those browsing customers and create sales.

Customers don’t care about the internal organisation divisions such as online and in-store; they just want to buy the products on offer. Yet these internal divisions are making the buying process increasingly difficult as the many different purchasing channels all compete against each other.

For example, if a customer goes into a store and a salesperson helpfully demonstrates the product and offers a great deal but the customer is not yet ready to commit – they will naturally go home and look for the deal online to help make their decision. If the deal is not on the retailer’s site and an exclusive in-store only deal, they may then go through the companies call centre, which only adds further barriers between the initial contact and sale discouraging the customer to make the purchase.

Strengthening customer interaction is key to increasing sales. By incorporating in-store deals, delivery schedules and products with a retailer’s online presence will only further enhance the customer’s perspective of the brand. This makes it easier for them to buy the goods they desire with the confidence that they will receive their purchases safe and sound.

Optimising the customer experience

There was a time when businesses had one shot at getting the design of a website right. Once the site was launched businesses rarely reviewed its success. Today, smart retailers are optimising the customer experience by continuously testing, learning and improving the sites processes. Many retail web designers now include multiple versions of the same page into the production stage, experimenting with different placement, copy and size to provide an analysis of the best conversion rate.

Retail businesses need to stop thinking of their e-commerce site as a project with defined deliverables. The outdated concept of a single release should be consigned to history, to make way for continuous improvements. Every week the photo sharing website Flickr continue to enhance their site. They publish this data; in just one week they made 622 changes to their live site. They did this through 63 releases. Most companies are pleased to get just one release done.

Not just driving sales

Retailers often feel that a virtual shopping assistant will help customers select the product but once the user has reached the checkout, poor usability, inconsistency and bad design frequently results in the customer just giving up.

Online shopping has become a major part of the retail experience for customers, bringing in a significant turnover for many retail businesses. Although running an online store has become a natural part of selling, retailers still need to understand that e-commerce isn’t just about getting people to shop more. It also needs to be about learning how to improve the user experience to persuade them to shop better.