During the height of the 2013 Christmas shopping season we surveyed online shoppers for their attitudes about the user experience of 10 popular US retail websites.

In conjunction with our panel partner, Op4G, we collected and analyzed the responses of 800 participants about factors such as usability, loyalty, trust and appearance using the Standardized User Experience Percentile Rank Questionnaire (SUPR-Q).

The 10 websites evaluated were:

  • Walmart
  • Best Buy
  • Amazon
  • Target
  • Bed, Bath & Beyond
  • Etsy
  • Nordstrom
  • Overstock.com
  • Staples
  • Walgreens

More details on the study are available in our report; here are some highlights of what we found.

What People Do on Retail Websites

Unlike health insurance websites, the common user tasks on retail websites weren’t too surprising. In general, users are looking for products to purchase. If we think about the purchase process using the classic sales funnel, we can break the activities down into browsing, narrowing and purchasing.

Across the websites, at any given time, 68% of users were browsing and only 16% were actually making a purchase. That is, users on retail websites are 4 times more likely to be browsing than buying. This purchase rate may be inflated due to the time of year and future analysis done in other quarters can confirm that.

Digging into the narrowing phase, we found that some 11% report doing price comparisons or looking for sales or deals.

Task performance varies depending on the type of task. Users on Walmart and Staples had a harder time doing price comparisons. Users on Overstock.com had the most difficulty browsing for items.

Overstock User: “Some of the items need to be categorized better for searching” and” It’s kind of busy at times. There’s a lot to look at at once.”

What to Fix

Given the high percentage of browsers versus buyers, more time is spent finding a product and consequently using search and navigation. It’s not much of surprise then to see that these are two of the most commonly mention areas for improvement.

Search can mean anything from the search accuracy to the layout and presentation of the search results page. Nevertheless, the entire search experience has a big impact on impressions and task-success.

Etsy User: “The search feature [needs to be fixed]. Apparently, they have changed their search algorithm, so it’s harder to find stuff that you used to be able to find easily.”

Findability is consistently one of the biggest areas for improvement. Few things are more efficient at improving findability than running a series of tree-tests to understand what labels are and aren’t working and where people expect to find items.

Target User: “It’s a bit cluttered and not as intuitive to search as sites like Walmart.com and Amazon.com.”

Filtering : For large retailers it’s all about narrowing the choices down beyond product categories. The ability to filter by product attributes like price, size, shipping, and a number of product specific attributes like screen size or weight still need improvement on a number of sites.

Nordstrom User: “A better selection of related item choices so, for example, you can compare items like a handbag to select the right size and shape.

Best Buy User: “A better filter, things like the price tend to reset when something else is selected, so price usually has to be selected last.”

 

Appearance

When asked what to improve, many users will often mention the appearance of websites and use words like “clutter” or “busy.”

Target User: “A little cleaner user interface, I know there’s a lot at Target, but the navigation is sometimes annoying to work with.”

Bed Bath & Beyond User: “Sort of cluttered visually, but I am usually able to eventually find what I am looking for.”

Walgreens User: “A little busy looking. Not everything needs to grab the viewers’ attention”

The visual appeal of a website plays an important role in a brand, establishing and maintaining trust. Users generally find usable websites more beautiful. So improving appearance is both something that’s easy for users to mention and is likely a surrogate for improving the usability. We track appearance as part of the SUPR-Q and break it out in the report.

Nordstrom and Etsy rate the highest for appearance (slightly edging out Amazon), with Staples and Walgreens being the least attractive in this group. Walgreens is the only website that falls below average in appearance relative to the 200 websites in the SUPR-Q database.

Trust

Trust plays a critical role in online transactions. If users don’t trust the quality of the products or the safety of their information, they’re less likely to purchase and return.

The brands behind the websites we surveyed are relatively highly trusted and that’s reflected in the trust data with the industry average scoring at the 88th percentile. The lowest trusted website was Walgreens and even it still scored above average.

Data was collected just prior to the major data-breach at Target. In our next follow-up, we’ll see if the effects of all the media attention around this story will have longer term impacts on Target’s trust and loyalty scores.

Usability

Amazon again is the benchmark to beat when it comes to the usability of the online retail experience. It scores in the 99th percentile in the overall SUPR-Q score and leads the pack here as well.

Walgreens has the poorest usability rating, which places it at the 60th percentile in the SUPR-Q database. While users are drawn to the photo and online prescriptions, there’s room for improvement in the experience.

Walgreens User : “Better link between photo printing order generation and actual printing of photos.”

For being one of the sites with the highest revenue, Staples had surprisingly low scores relative to its peers.

Staples User : “Less in your face “deals”. I already know what I am looking for.”

One reason for the above average usability we see on retail websites is the immediate feedback the website developers receive when they change features and layout through A/B testing. When sales go down there’s incentive and feedback on what’s working well and what needs to be fixed.

Loyalty

The Net Promoter Score is meant to be a proxy for future growth of products and services based on the word-of-mouth of customers. We extend that idea to websites and find that likelihood to recommend correlates with other UX metrics.

The average Net Promoter Score for this group is 39%. Amazon leads the pack with an NPS of 77%, which isn’t too surprising. Etsy scored just behind Amazon with a 71%, suggesting it is generating some positive word-of-mouth. Walgreens had the lowest NPS score at 10%.

Keep in mind the average NPS for all websites is actually around a -10%, so the websites in this retail group all score above average.

The Value of a Promoter

Promoters are users who gave a 9 or 10 on the 10 point likelihood to recommend question (NPS). We can estimate how valuable a promoter is for each website by determining the percent of customers who are referred to a website and who actually referred someone in the last year.

So while Amazon had the highest Net Promoter Score, Etsy had the most users who referred a friend in the last year at 68%. Etsy also had the most users who said someone referred them. On average, Etsy needs 4 promoters to generate one new website user.

In contrast, the well-known big-box retailer Walmart needs 85 promoters to generate a new customer. For a website like Walmart that has such a recognized brand and as many physical locations, it’s less about word-of-mouth to generate new customers and more about getting customers to return and make a purchase.

The power of word of mouth clearly is helping Etsy as unlike most of the other retailers, Etsy doesn’t have a physical presence and doesn’t have the legacy and name recognition like eBay. We’ll see how Etsy does when we collect data again.

Favorite Features

Physical retailers in their attempt to compete more with Amazon are trying to take advantage of their stores. We see that about 1 in 6 customers at Walmart and BestBuy mentioned the Ship to Store option as their favorite feature.

We’ll see how many retailers can work out the supply-chain logistics and effectively communicate the option to online shoppers at the point of need.

Deals and Sales were reported the favorite features for Target, Staples, Overstock and Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Visit Frequency

There are a lot of choices for purchasing online. You won’t have customers returning to websites if the experience is horrible. Amazon is the most frequently visited website with customers reporting visits about every two days! The next closest is Etsy with participants reporting visiting about twice a week.

Year-over-Year

We collected data on 5 of the websites in 2012 and saw little movement in the scores. While a much larger sample size would likely detect some differences as statistically significant, the changes would be small.

This is generally consistent with what we see across industries. Unless there are major changes in designs, features or the brand itself, overall attitudes are generally stable (remember Netflix’s change to Quickster?). While individual features, pages and navigation changes can be improved, it takes time and repeated positive experiences for improvements to be reflected in scoring.

More details are available in the report.