Couple does some online shopping

How Customers Decide to Buy From Your Website

10+ min read • Sep 18, 2020 • Derek Miller

As a small e-commerce brand, you likely invested a lot of time and resources into your business. From product development and production to creating a website and developing your digital brand, significant effort and money go into running an online store.

While creating a great product and delivering exceptional customer service is crucial to growing your e-commerce brand, the bread and butter is often your ability to drive traffic to your website—and convert said traffic.

More visitors to your e-commerce store mean more potential customers. However, most online businesses don’t actually convert the majority of their visitors. 

The average online store only has a 4% conversion rate (which hovered around 1% for smartphone users in 2017). Compare this to an offline, or brick-and-mortar, retail store, which converts between 20 and 40% of its foot traffic. 

Even if you have a good e-commerce website, you are still likely to lose 95% of your potential customers from the time they land on your page to the moment you want them to submit their credit card information. What happens during this time? 

Your customers have thousands of micro-choices to make during the buying process. What they click on, what they read, and how they navigate your website all dictate whether someone purchases or not.

As an e-commerce business owner, the main way to ensure purchases is to make your website as accessible and clear as possible. 

This guide will bring you through the whole customer journey and outline how consumers choose to buy items online. Use it to learn more about the shopping behavior of your customers and follow our tips to optimize your site to maximize conversions.

Evaluate the Navigation Experience on Your Website

View of hands navigating the web

Your user experience starts with your navigation, or the process your customers use to visit different areas of your website. You’ve probably experienced poor navigation on another website. You may have landed on the website searching for a specific piece of information only to be met with a confusing layout that doesn’t help you find what you wanted—leaving you frustrated and unfulfilled.

Great navigation is about making your website (and each page) incredibly clear and focused. When someone lands on a page, they should immediately know what information is available on that page and how to find other pertinent information. Otherwise, they’ll leave and look elsewhere. 

Clear navigation is a sitewide initiative that starts with great menus, sidebars, and footers. However, you can also take it a step further by adding calls to action (CTAs) to other valuable resources within a page’s content.

Your navigation needs to be clear regardless of the page your customers land on. While many customers visit your homepage first, others will arrive on product or category pages. 

The key to success in good website navigation is to make the parent and child categories clear. A parent category is a high-level section of your website, while the child categories make up more niche sections. Men’s pants would be a child category of menswear. Cargo shorts would be a child category of men’s pants. 

With clear navigation, customers can move freely through your website to a category or section relevant to their needs. They know where they are and how to get where they want to go. 

For an e-commerce business, the ability to filter products is just as important as the navigation options. Filtering allows customers to eliminate products that aren’t relevant to their needs, reducing the number of options for easier decision-making. 

Consider the needs of a woman looking for a formal red dress on a fashion website: she only wants to see dresses that come in her size, are red, are meant for formal affairs, and are floor-length. Filters can narrow hundreds of dress options down to her dozen top picks. She then knows which product pages to visit first. 

There are many ways to evaluate the accessibility of your navigation and filtering options. You can conduct tests of your own by asking strangers to use your online store and note any problems they have. 

There are also software tools to consider. Crazy Egg and Mouseflow create heat maps that show where the customer’s mouse goes and where their eyes focus. You can see if important information is getting lost because of a confusing website layout. 

If you’re looking to get inspired by the navigation and filters of other online stores, review other e-commerce sites in your industry. How do your competitors give customers road maps on their websites? How do they make the shopping experience easier? Check out major brands like Bed Bath & Beyond and compare to small local stores to see what is most effective. 

Answer Customer Questions With Your Product Pages

Person browsing product page of shopping site

Your navigation brings people to your product pages, and your product pages convince people to buy from you. The information you present on these pages can win over customers on certain items and convince them to buy from you over your competitors. 

One of the reasons online conversion rates are so low: customers can’t hold items in their hands and physically see them before they buy. People have learned to be suspicious of websites that they’ve never shopped before because some brands will manipulate product photos to look higher-quality than they actually are. 

(For a great example, check out the memes and photos related to Wish.com, where people share what the product they ordered looked like versus what actually arrived.)  

As a business owner, you can overcome these customer nerves with product information. The content you add to your product pages can give customers the confidence needed to trust your brand. Consider adding a few of these elements to your pages. 

  • Upload multiple high-quality photos, including photos of people holding the items to provide context for scale. When possible, avoid the standard “flat item on white background” photo.
  • Make sure your product descriptions are highly detailed and provide value to customers—not just SEOs. Humans don’t want to read keyword-stuffed descriptions. They want to know about the products. Include details about the measurements, materials, flow, and use for the products to help customers learn about them. Check out Etsy for inspiration: these sellers are making unique, homemade goods and must describe them to people who have never seen them before.  
  • Include videos highlighting how the item works. You can request these from vendors or create them on your own. Videos provide a more intimate experience with the product and offer a vantage that can’t be achieved with static photos. 
  • Ask customers to write reviews of the products and share photos or videos. This added level of content builds credibility for your brand and allows other people to endorse your business. 

If you want to see what top-notch product pages look like, check out travel companies and the tours they offer. Brands like Intrepid Travel, Gate 1, and G Adventures add detailed itineraries that answer a dozen different questions from where travelers will stay to what they will eat. They include quality images, videos, and reviews to sell customers on a 10-day trip around Japan or a week cruising the Danube. 

Naturally, a website selling local honey or handmade jewelry doesn’t need the same level of detail as a travel company, but these brands offer strong examples of how to assuage customers’ worries and satisfy their quality expectations. 

Use Calls to Action to Turn Browsers Into Buyers

The customer journey doesn’t begin with finding the perfect product—there are several other considerations that your target audience weighs as they determine whether or not they should actually buy from you. 

The first consideration is the price. Are your prices competitive compared to other items out there? If your items are more expensive, then you need to sell shoppers on your overall value. Why is it worth it to pay more? 

The next consideration is your shipping strategy. People, as a whole, are impatient. Many small businesses have lost out to Amazon because customers want items in 2 or 3 days, not a week from now. Shipping costs are also sore spots for customers. Your customers might not want to buy from you if they can order similar items from another store and get the shipping for free. 

Amazon has trained customers to expect free shipping. A 2018 study by the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that 75% of customers expect free shipping—even on orders below $50. This is a significant increase from 68% of customers in 2017. 

Another interesting note: customers look for shipping information long before they start the checkout process. The same NRF study found that 68% of consumers look for shipping information before they add items to the cart. Customers also want to know when the item will arrive, and 39% expect 2-day shipping to be free and standard.

If your online business can’t offer free shipping on all orders or deliver it in 2 days (which most can’t), you can still win over customers and convince them to buy your products. Consider offering shipping deals for customers who hit certain thresholds. 

Victoria’s Secret typically offers free shipping on orders over $100. If a customer has $80 worth of items in the cart, they’re more likely to spend $20 to save $8 on shipping—they perceive more value in the items they buy rather than saving money by just paying for shipping. 

A free shipping threshold can increase conversions while also upselling customers. However, if you cannot offer free shipping, communicate the information on your product pages. If possible, share how much shipping will be and when customers can expect their items to arrive. This information can move the decision-making process forward. 

Shipping is one of the main factors in the online customer journey, but there are other ways to get people to add items to their cart. Include clear calls to action to buy the items, offer discounts for hitting certain spending limits (like $10 off $50), and hold limited-time sales to get people to act quickly. The more you browse around different online stores, the more you can see these sales tactics in action—and brands wouldn’t keep using them if they didn’t work. 

Optimize Your Cart Experience

If you’ve reached the point where customers are adding items to their carts and starting the checkout process, then you’re close to the finish line. In brick-and-mortar stores, the vast majority of customers who reach the checkout line plan to buy their items. However, this is different in the e-commerce world. The average abandon cart rate is 69.57% (using data collected from 41 different studies). 

After all the work you put in to drive traffic to your website and sell customers on your products, fewer than 1/3 will actually complete the buying process. This makes the shopping cart a source of frustration for many online business owners. 

Customers abandon their online carts for many reasons. Earlier, we mentioned how unexpected shipping costs can drive customers away. Customers also bounce because they aren’t ready to buy. Some people want to “save” items in the cart to remember them and reconsider their purchase in the future. Others want to compare your items to others offered by different companies.

Many of the reasons customers abandon their carts are out of your control. However, you can control one aspect: the ease of the checkout process. By making it easy to buy your items, you can create a positive shopping experience for new and returning customers alike. 

The team at ABTasty encourages readers to make the checkout process clear, simple, and fast. No one enjoys filling out shipping information (which is why most people rely on autofill), and every moment spent in the cart is time customers have to reconsider their purchases.

Many e-commerce experts are proponents of the single-page cart. This is a 1-step process where customers fill out all of the information they need on 1 page and then check out. This is considered a smoother alternative to reloading the page to review items, add shipping information, input payment, and then confirm the purchase. With 4 pages to get through in the cart, you give customers 4 opportunities to change their minds.   

Additionally, you may want to consider whether or not you allow customers to check out as guests or require them to create accounts. There are pros and cons to both options. Guest checkout is faster for new customers and can make more people feel comfortable—you won’t save their information, and they don’t have to create a new username and password for yet another website. However, when customers create accounts, they can check out faster as return shoppers. They can receive better marketing messages and, possibly, better shipping updates. 

Consider A/B testing the user experience on your website. See whether or not customers want to create accounts and whether your online store can benefit from account creation. Every e-commerce business is different and depends on the customers, products, and brand.

Turn New Customers Into Repeat Shoppers

Customer Retention Sign

Even when your customer hits the “complete purchase” button, your work still isn’t done. You have to fulfill your promises by shipping quality items within the expected time period. You also need to continue talking to your customers to encourage them to return and to help you win over new sales. 

Consider how you ask customers to leave reviews for the items they buy. Some stores have a simple email that triggers automatically a few days after a customer gets their order, while others utilize survey software that uploads reviews online. Your goal is to get feedback on items and to use these reviews to win over potential customers on your product pages. 

A rule of thumb for product review emails: know when to send them. Have you ever had a waitress ask how the food is before you’ve even taken a bite? Your customers experience this exact problem when you ask for a review before they ever use the product. Many retailers work to find the “sweet spot” where customers have had a chance to use the product but haven’t forgotten about the purchase. 

Along with asking for product reviews, you can also solicit website feedback. This can give you concrete steps for improving your online experience in order to help future customers. These surveys can be sent right after the purchase is completed. 

However you choose to solicit customer feedback, make sure you take action on the comments. Some of your best ideas for website improvements may come from a customer who wants the best for you.  

Small Improvements Have a Big Impact on Your Sales Funnel

Maintaining an online business often comes with obsessing over small details. Every minor improvement you make—from changing the placement of an “add to cart” button to the addition of a free-shipping banner—can impact your customers’ behavior. 

Small increases in the number of customers who visit your checkout page can dramatically grow your sales as more people convert and fewer people bounce at the top of the sales funnel. 

This reality is why the whole customer journey matters. Marketing isn’t just about bringing people to your website—it’s about convincing them to stay there, to check out different pages, to look at multiple products, and to consider buying them. 

Consider each aspect of your buying process and see how it can be improved. A few small changes over time can win over new customers and help you to grow your online brand. 

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Derek Miller

Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, the co-founder of Lofty Llama, and a marketing consultant for small businesses. He specializes in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing, and his work has been featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp.