9 Features of Great Online Stores

9 Features of Great Online StoresSince more than 80% of the online population has used the internet to buy something (and more than 50% have shopped online more than once), you probably have all experienced at least one online store in your life. Was the experience a pleasant one? I was shopping online for tea recently. I had received a a coupon code from an email newsletter and I was trying to use it. I clicked on the link to get to the product the code applied to, added it to my cart, then had to find the place to enter the code (which wasn’t easy to find). Time to check out, so I logged into the site only to find that my shopping cart had been replaced by one I didn’t even remember filling, the item I had added wasn’t showing, and my coupon code was gone. With a sigh, I started over again. That store was lucky I didn’t just close my browser window and decide not to make the purchase after all.

Online sales worldwide are growing by 19% a year, and sales are expected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2015. That’s whys many companies are thinking of taking the plunge to start selling their products online. But, as we have all seen, not all online stores are created equally. Don’t assume that you can only have a serviceable online store for your budget – set your sites on having a great online store. The best stores make shopping convenient for customers, content sharable, and make the entire shopping process as easy and enjoyable as possible. If you are thinking of adding a new online store to your business (or upgrading your store), here are some things to look for in an shopping cart provider.

1. Include agreat search

Helping a customer to find the perfect product online is the job of a great search. No one wants to browse through 50 wrong products to find what they want – they will just go elsewhere. An easy and intuitive way to find products is probably one of the most important features to a successful online store. If I’m shopping for yarn, I want to be able to search by fiber weight and type. If the only way to search is by manufacturer, I’ll probably buy my yarn from someone else.

The best online stores take into account the different ways that people like to search and the differences in information a person may have. For example, one customer may know exactly what they want to buy – the name, manufacturer, color, make, style, etc. That person just wants to find what they are looking for quickly and easily. But another customer may only have the vaguest idea of what they want – they may know they want an umbrella but not even know the styles, colors, features, and sizes available. Another customer may just want to browse the store and see what kind of interesting things you have. Yet another may want to search for a keyword like “South Park”. Your store has to be ready to help any of these types of customer with both a directory of products categorized in a way that makes sense for your business AND a search.

A directory is a hierarchical listing of products. For example under office furniture, you might list desks, chairs, lamps, file cabinets, tables, etc. Then, under lamps, it might list floor lamps, desk lamps, and ceiling lamps. You might even have further categories under those.

A search, on the other hand, is just a box where a person can type any keywords and pull up all the relevant results. So, if I type in purple lamps, I might find pictures of purple lamps in with the actual purple lamps. The best online sites have a way to narrow the results of a search. So, for example, if I’m looking for a purple desk lamp, I might start with a search for purple lamps, then narrow my search results down to the category of “office furniture”, narrow by price range, number of stars, or manufacturer.

Finally, provide a way for the customer to sort the search results by price, rating, and any other way that makes sense for your store.

2. Provide complete product information

Your online store search engine and directory will only be as good as the data you have entered about each product. If your data is wrong or incomplete, the best search engine in the world won’t be able to help a customer find the products they want. That’s why its important to take the time to compile all the relevant information about products for your store. In addition to price, each product should ideally include:

  • A good, clear, “zoomable” picture (let me expand to a larger photo and zoom in on the relevant parts of the picture)
  • Pictures of the product in all the colors and styles available (if there is a physical difference). Don’t just show the shirt in red and say it comes in yellow and blue as well. Have a picture of each available color.
  • A good description of the product. This will include all the information a customer might want to know before deciding to make a purchase such as:
    • Information about compatibility where applicable. If you are selling parts for a product, for example, be sure you give all the information about which products those parts will work for. If you are selling expendable items (like paper or ink), be sure to give all the details about which devices they are for
    • Physical specifications of the item like the size and weight. You are going to need the weight, anyway, to calculate shipping costs.
    • Material where it may matter (i.e. for clothes, yarn, foods).
  • Related products. If this is a part of another product, show the other parts. For example, if you are selling printers, show the appropriate ink cartridges. On the other hand, if the product doesn’t have related parts, you may want to show other similar products. For example, if the product is a purple desk lamp, you could show other styles of lamps.

3. Show product reviews

Yes, you will have some bad reviews. That’s part of selling products online. Think about this – if people are unhappy with a product you are making or selling, wouldn’t you rather know about it so you can fix it? Also consider that most online shoppers have read enough reviews to be able to consider the source. If you have twenty 5 star reviews and one 1 star review, shoppers are going to see that most people are satisfied and probably not be deterred from purchasing your product. In fact, all the happy customers are probably going to help them decide to buy! Reviews are a good retailer’s friend. However, it’s probably better to plan to moderate your reviews to make sure that they meet the standards of your site for profanity and spam and that they are relevant to the product.

One problem you may have to solve with a new online store is how to get a few initial reviews for your products. There are a lot of stores out there without any reviews on them and this doesn’t look great for that store or the products in the store. Writing a review takes an investment of time from the customer, so you may need to entice customers to write reviews. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Send an email to customers a few days after a product has shipped asking them to review the product.
  2. Include an area on the home page of the store which shows products recently purchased and provides an easy, one-click way to just give the product rating.
  3. Have a drawing or contest for customers who review your products in a certain time period to be entered to win something – just be sure that the review doesn’t have to be positive to win.

4. Enable social sharing

Shoppers who are on social media are absolutely influenced to make purchases, and influence others to make purchases, based on social sharing. In fact,Forbes talks about the value of social sharing in this article.That’s why you need to make it easy for your customers to let others know what they have purchased and how they liked the product with social sharing. This is especially great for items that people may be very excited about like concert tickets, travel plans, games, etc. Usually this is pretty easy to implement.

Some companies even use social media like Facebook as the way to power reviews (see ThinkGeek.com, one of my favorite sites online). This serves the purpose of providing reviews on the site and also adds to the conversation on the company’s social media platform. However, it can make it harder to search for products based on the rating.

5. Include an easy-to-use shopping cart

The shopping cart is where a lot of abandonment takes place for online stores (where people leave the site and don’t complete the purchase). You can reduce this by making the final purchase process as easy as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Make the shopping cart only one page. The more people have to click, the more of them you’ll lose. I challenge you to find a large online retailer who has a shopping cart that is multiple pages long anymore. Granted, you might have to have more pages for initial orders, but after a customer has provided shipping and billing information, save it and make the shopping cart lean.
  • Save as much data for them as possible, from address to payment method, so that the customer will only have to enter this information once. It is important to do this securely, however. For most small businesses, this means a third-party application to store your customer data for you.
  • Make sure the shopping cart is saved automatically for users. If they lose their connection or have to stop shopping before completing a purchase, you want to make it as easy as possible to get back to where they left off.
  • Give a way to estimate shipping without having to sign in to the store. Customers want to be sure that shipping charges are reasonable before they commit to your store by giving you their contact information.
  • Make it easy and intuitive to change quantities or delete items from the cart.All you will get from a tricky shopping cart is more customer service call is fewer orders.
  • If you have special offers based on the amount purchased, show clearly what the user has to do to qualify. For example, if you have free shipping on orders over $50, make sure the shopping cart shows how much more they have to order to qualify. And be sure that when they do qualify, it shows up properly in the cart. Some sites will even show this information in the header of the site so that you can see it from any page (KnitPicks.com does this and it works very well).

6. Require customizable emails

When a customer places an order in your online store, they are usually prepared to provide an email address and expect to receive emails from you with the status of their order. These are emails with a very high open rate compared to newsletters or sales flyers you may send, so you want to make the most use of them as possible. Make sure your emails provide all the information a customer is likely to want – so an order confirmation email shows all the details of the order – but this can also be a great place to let the customer know about other products you may have which might be of interest, contests which are ongoing, etc. This may also be a way to follow up on shipped orders with a request for a review.

So make sure that your shopping cart product allows you to customize emails as much as possible so you can test different approaches and see what works for your business. I recommend you know the limitations of this feature before you make a purchase decision.

7. Exportable to Google shopping

Google Adwords and Google Shopping are both great tools for businesses to use. But since inventory data often changes rapidly, Google has provided a way to easily keep them updated with your latest pricing and inventory info. And since Adwords allows you have both a display ad and a product ad on the same page of search results, making use of Adwords to list your products can give you extra bang for your advertising buck. Modern shopping cart solutions should have a way to interface with Google shopping for this purpose, but at the very least you need to be able to download the product data into a spreadsheet to be uploaded to Google.

8. Mobile compatibility is a must

If your site isn’t compatible with mobile devices like smart phone and tablets, you are probably missing out on sales. People are using these devices more and more to make purchases online. One of the best ways to ensure compatibility is to use responsive design. This enables your site to be configured for any size screen. In some cases, it may make sense to even do a mobile version of your site, but make sure you don’t lose needed functionality for the sake of brevity. Many web sites assume that users won’t need a feature when they are on mobile and exclude it, thus making their mobile site useless to visitors.

9. Make use of testing & analytics

As with all things in the online space, testing and analytics are the key to making a truly great user experience. Test any changes you make and test everything about your pages to make them as effective as possible. You might notice that sites like Amazon are constantly making small changes to the shopping experience – they aren’t making these in a vacuum. They test to get the best conversion rate possible from their shopping customers. And you can do the same thing. You can see more about testing in my article here.

Analytics are critical because they make it possible to know where people are abandoning their carts, how they are navigating your site, where they are coming from, where they are entering your site and where they are leaving. With this information, you can continue to iterate on your site design to make it as effective as possible. Google Analytics is a free package that is very well suited to ecommerce sites, integrates with Adwords, and can give you a lot of great data. However, if your site is mission-critical, I recommend you also have a server-side analytics package (meaning one you install on your server). Things can go wrong with Google Analytics and you don’t want to lose data. Plus, you can compare the two and investigate any discrepancies.

Build a Great Online Store!

Sometimes clients are limited by budget or time and cannot make use of all these recommended features, but you should get as close to the ideal as possible. Do your research and investigation up front to save money and time down the road. Most shopping cart vendors will give you the option of seeing a demo – take advantage of this. Come to them with a list of questions based on this list and compare the options to find the best choice.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in finding the best shopping cart for your business? Are there vendors you can recommend to others? Let us know in the comments below.