Women make up the overwhelming majority of retail consumers.1 However, they are shopping more and more on e-commerce sites designed and built by a tech industry dominated by men. This is revealing an underlying tension between the behaviors a site is designed to encourage, and the preferences of its users. E-commerce sites have largely ignored the shopping habits of its largest potential audience — women.
We decided to talk with a group of women and observe their behaviors in physical stores to uncover what is missing in the current online shopping experience.
“I just like to shop. I like the event of shopping. I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
“I get really frustrated online. I get tired of looking. I get tired of clicking through page after page.”
Conventional e-commerce sites are optimized primarily to search for one item at a time in a linear manner. Users find products through searches or by browsing a category. This interaction pattern assumes users move directly from an index page to a product details page to a cart to the checkout. In essence, they are built for the way men tend to shop: go into a store, navigate directly to a predetermined item, select the item from a narrow set of choices, check out, and leave.2
But, when we studied and talked with women, we noted that this pattern doesn’t fit with how they prefer to shop. Some women meander the store browsing for things that might catch their attention. Others aren’t searching for one item, but for sets of items, like a new summer wardrobe or outfit. How can we create experiences that satisfy these common modes of shopping?
Most e-commerce sites are optimized for a utilitarian march toward purchasing.
Current sites feel transactional, stemming from a focus on retailers’ desires. This model largely ignores how customers might envision the experience.
We investigated ways to design a more dynamic and engaging online shopping experience. Below are some ideas for bringing the more social and exploratory aspects of shopping to the online space.
Our research revealed that shopping is far more than a means to acquire things. It can be a fun diversion, a method of expressing one's personal identity or style, or even a way to build trust with close friends and family. Without exploring how e-commerce sites can deliver on these expectations, they might also be missing out on building loyalty with powerful consumers.
When you watch people shop, you will see them pick up an item, hold it up to another item, hold it up to themselves, inspect it, and mull it over. They are weighing many factors to decide whether or not this item is for them. But that behavior isn’t accounted for in the typical e-commerce user flow. In an effort to tighten the sales funnel, online shops encourage users to go straight from browsing to buying without giving them ways to consider their purchases.
With that in mind, we focused on three areas where we could bridge the gap.
In physical stores, women frequently shop not for individual items, but for a collection of items: an outfit, a place setting, or even the ingredients for a meal. One woman cleverly noted that “When I am browsing in a store, I don’t look at things alone. When you try on pants, you don’t try it on without a shirt. You need to see what it will look like with a shirt.”
But, that is what is expected of online shoppers. E-commerce sites seem to say, “Here, look at all our pants and only our pants.” Online, it’s difficult to browse multiple product categories simultaneously. Browsing is siloed and constrained to predefined categories, making it difficult to compare dissimilar items. Each search is isolated.
The advantages of making comparison shopping easier are two-fold: the potential to convert one initial search into a multi-item purchase, and preventing the shopping cart workaround. E-retailers use metrics like cart abandonment to gauge the success of their conversion funnel.
But, some of the customers we talked to use the shopping cart like a sandbox: they throw in all the items they are even remotely considering, so that they can centralize the information. This is because viewing all that information while browsing the site is difficult. They may never buy more than 10% or 20% of the items they toss into their digital cart.
Since retailers equate a cart-add with intent to purchase, that work-around behavior actually skews data. By creating a space within the shopping experience for a customer to consider multiple items, retailers will be able to more accurately parse out which items truly interest their customers.
When we approached this problem, we thought about ways to keep the shopper in the context of her current search, while also revealing a wide array of complementary products. We wanted to create a space where a customer could consider pairings while staying in the browsing and shopping mindset.
Physical stores excel at showing a variety of categories at once. You might see a display featuring t-shirts, jeans, and sweaters for instance.
To replicate this online, a panel could emerge suggesting you check out how that item pairs with another product category, sliding in a carousel of items. This approach avoids taking the shopper out of context, and down distracting rabbit holes. This also surfaces a wider variety of items than specific recommendations, so there’s a greater chance of matching someone’s personal style.
This allows a customer to “take” items along with them as they shop, as one might while wandering through a store. Favorites aren’t a new concept, but creating a visible and persistent favorites panel is.
Here, we add a vertical favorites area. Users can drag and drop items in to build multiple collections or outfits. They can continue to review and edit their collections while they browse.
The current process for finding an item online feels more like running a query on a database than like shopping. One woman noted that she hated filters because “I don’t know how they are grouping colors. Is this green or teal? I as a customer cannot anticipate how someone else would have organized it. And there is nobody to ask online.”
Yet, that same woman described browsing a store as an enthralling hunt. Why do two searches yield such different reactions? Some women seemed to delight at the thought of finding something unique, a hidden gem, or even an item that they wouldn't have typically considered. They aren’t reacting to the process of the search, but to finding something unexpected. The challenge here, then, is to give people that same thrill of discovery in an online setting.
This is difficult to replicate online in the current search structure. There isn't really an authentic way to happen upon something without feeling heavily guided. Vignettes and featured products are curated by editors, and their hand is evident in the selections. It feels more like a suggestion than a discovery. Without creating a feeling of personal discovery, online retailers miss an opportunity to cultivate an emotional attachment to the products. How do we create a feeling of ownership over the exploration?
To give people that sense, we decided to rethink how products relate to each other. The beauty of a flea market table or a vignette in a lifestyle store, like Anthropologie, is a seemingly haphazard arrangement of items governed by some loose guides and rules. It almost sets up a quick mental game for the viewer, figure out the relationship between this and that. That type of stimulation to find both contrasts and similarities between items keeps the customer engaged and curious, and occasionally surprised. So, how might we design that into an e-commerce site?
Taking one overarching category, like homegoods, we could then create a chain of queries for tags. Instead of showing items that all match the same one query, one item would proceed from the last, like a game of telephone. These two items are made of the same material. The next two are the same color. And so on. This would essentially generate a curated set of items at random. This would have the potential to preserve that authentic feeling of stumbling upon something, while still maintaining some rules to keep the results relevant and related.
A subset of the women we interviewed think of shopping as a social event. “I don’t like shopping on my own. I need someone else’s opinion.” They seek out specific and personalized feedback from trusted advisors to guide their decision. While a second opinion is readily available in most store settings, either through a trusted friend that a shopper brings along or the honest advice of a salesperson, it’s cumbersome to do online.
Making social interactions a larger part of online shopping could have a significant effect on conversions. Access to a sounding board is a useful tool for many. These opinions are often the deciding factor in helping someone make a final choice on purchases.
This is also an opportunity to reach new customers. Close friends of the current customer could be strong leads because their tastes and lifestyles are likely similar to the person already shopping on the site. After reviewing an item for a friend, they may also decide to check out the store’s offerings for themselves. This is a far more organic and authentic interaction around a real decision, instead of traditional advertising and promotion tactics that originate from the retailer.
Often, when people talk about adding social elements to an e-commerce site, they mean sharing. However, sharing is somewhat one-sided, and is typically directed to a large network of loose associations. It is useful to the shop, but not so useful to the customer. Sharing allows for someone to say "This is what I bought," not ask "Should I buy this?" While forums can add a setting for feedback, this isn't intimate or personalized feedback. It is based on the opinion of the general public, not a close friend.
We wanted to focus on how to create a setting for quieter, personal exchanges about the products someone was considering. This space should be appropriate for having more personal exchanges about the product, how it might complement a current wardrobe, or even how it might fit or flatter the wearer. This type of feedback needs to come from people who know the customer and their style well.
After creating a wishlist of items to consider, users would be able to email a link to friends, soliciting their advice and feedback. Those friends could review the list, vote up or down on each item and/or add comments. These tallies and comments would then be shared back with the customer to help them in their deliberations.
In the future, this feature may grow to even include the option to add a personal stylist from the store, who could give professional recommendations and advice on specific items.
The key to promoting sales is to give the customer the space and environment to develop an emotional attachment to the products.
Online shopping lacks the fun of real shopping because it’s focused so heavily on getting you to the checkout. Current patterns ignore the way many people prefer to shop, and treat every product more or less the same. With so many products competing for customers’ attention, and a lack of guidance for the customer, the experience often feels boring and mechanical. By adding features that bridge the gap between analog and digital, we can create a far more enjoyable online shopping experience.