Why Most Retailers Need A Website With Good User Experience


We shop online for convenience, for bargains and for the wide product range. But if a retailer’s website wasn’t up to scratch, would it put you off shopping there?

Some of the UK’s biggest high street shops – including WHSmith, JD Sports and Dorothy Perkins – were recently named and shamed by consumers for having websites with poor user experience.

At a time when online sales make up nearly a fifth of all national retailing, most retailers simply cannot get away with delivering a substandard online shopping experience.

What customers expect of a retail website

A good retail website should be “really representative of a retailer’s brand,” said Rebecca Saunders, consultant at Saunders Retail.

There are key components to a good website, according to Saunders: “Easy navigation, including search functionality; images that are representative of the products and of the brand; information on delivery options and returns; and a good checkout experience.”  

The beauty brand Liz Earle topped Which?’s chart of the UK’s best online shops, compiled based on 10,000 responses. Other names in top 10 included John Lewis, Dyson, Lakeland, The Book People and Sea Salt Cornwall.

John Lewis’ website was named as one of the UK’s best online shops, alongside Liz Earlie, Dyson, Sea Salt Cornwall and Lakeland. © 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

“The online shops with the happiest customers tend to be the ones that offer a personal service, quality items and deliver quickly and conveniently,” said Harry Rose, editor of Which? Magazine, that carried out the survey.

And retailers shouldn’t treat websites as just another way to sell. “A website plays an important part in brand building,” Saunders, the retail consultant, explained.

It’s a way to showcase the brand and focus on the target audience. Sea Salt and Boden do this especially well, Saunders said. They have a clear view of their customers and show it through their product range, tone of voice and imagery on their websites.

Where are retailers websites failing?

Consumers grow frustrated with retailer websites when they do not meet their expectations. When a competitor site is just one click away, brands cannot afford to test their customers’ patience with a poor online experience.

A slow-to-load, clunky website where a shopper has to make all the effort to find the right information, and even to check out, ticks all the wrong boxes. A site that isn’t mobile-friendly will also result in unhappy customers, and retailers score even worse if their products aren’t competitively priced.

That’s how JD Sports, Dorothy Perkins, Sports Direct and WHSmith found their websites near the bottom of the pile. Homebase received the worst rating, as customers complained about the website’s poor navigation and lack of up-to-date stock information.

Consumers criticized Homebase’s website for its poor navigation and lack of up-to-date information. Photo: Bloomberg News.BLOOMBERG NEWS

How can they improve? It’s not as easy as telling these brands to invest in their websites.

“It is more likely that these retailers have been challenged and that has led to less optimal outcomes in various aspects of what they can offer customers,” Saunders said.

So it makes sense that there’s a “correlation, not causation,” Saunders explained, between a retailer’s website with a poor user experience and a struggling retailer overall.  

An exception to every rule

Despite online retail’s growing important, it is not yet indispensable (though we may be heading in that direction) to pour all resources into a website.

“A focus on websites might not be the right outcome for all retailers – it depends on the store,” Saunders explained.  

Primark, for example, is a retailer whose website is really poor in terms of user experience, though it doesn’t necessarily need a good website. Its main attraction for customers is the bargains they can find in store.

Customers love to shop in store at Primark, so its website is less of a focus for the retailer. © 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP© 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP

Yet it doesn’t ignore online completely: it places its focus elsewhere. “It is using digital in other ways to drive traffic to its stores,” Saunders said.

Retailers can make use of their social media accounts, digital advertising, and work with influencers to help attract customers.

“We have reached a point where online is so important that it cannot be ignored. But it is absolutely important that a retailer considers what is important for them from an online perspective,” Saunders added.

The lesson for retailers

In an ideal world, all retailers would provide an online experience that meets their customers’ expectations. The brands with websites that made it into the top UK online shops already know the benefits: connecting across channels with their target audience, building brand loyalty, and increasing sales.

But in the current retail climate, there are bound to be brands who cannot afford to invest in their website. In these cases, retailers can afford to ignore a website for the moment, as long as they don’t overlook digital as a whole. Instead, they need to assess what aspect of online works best for them and focus their efforts there.

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