Mobile Phones, In-Store Shopping, and a Little Thing Called Certitude

Pew Internet released a report late in January 2012 that quantified a behavior we either exhibit ourselves or see others exhibit ever more often – people using their smart phones as part of the in-store shopping process.  During the holiday shopping season:

  • 38% of smart phone owners called a friend for advice
  • 25% looked up prices online
  • 24% looked up product reviews online

We all understand why people do this – it’s to feel confident that we’re making the right decision and getting the best price.  The word that best describes this state we seek is Certitude, defined as “freedom from doubt.”

Back in the day
Back in the day, reaching certitude in a store used to be difficult unless you had already been to several other stores to check out prices.  This is the way most of us learned to shop.  Reaching certitude took time and effort.  Then the Web introduced online shopping and we no longer physically had to scour the local retail landscape to compare prices and availability.  Comparison shopping was far more efficiently done through a browser.  Online certitude remained elusive, however, because we could not feel, smell, or get a true multi-sensory impression of the product we sought.  And online merchants often failed (and still do) to provide all the information we needed in order for each of us to reach our own points of certitude.

When we shop packing smart phones, however, we have found the fastest path to certitude.  The ability to access the Web while we’re mobile – via bar-code scanning apps and QR links, in particular — has effectively allowed us to be many places at the same time.  Add the social dimension into the mix, and we have the equivalent of certitude support that was previously provided by having a friend there to proffer their opinion.  Macy’s, Saks, and other retailers know their shoppers often send a photo from the fitting room, asking for feedback.

The implications of certitude for the online store
We each have our own pathways and our own levels of certitude, but the smart phone-equipped store shopper is likely to get there faster than the single-mode shopper.  And this realization begs a question for the managers of all e-commerce sites: Have you done everything you can to allow your visitors to reach their own level of certitude?

Answer that question first by looking at your internal search.  The fastest, surest way for a visitor to reach certitude online is by being able to type a product ID into the search box and have the results deliver exactly what’s being sought.  Take the case of jeans.  Females who like how a pair of jeans fits in the store will often go online later to buy more pairs in different colors.  They already know the jeans fit, they just need to see what other colors are available.  Simple, right?  No.  The product ID on a garment label may have nothing to do with the way the garment is referenced as online inventory.  The ID ascribed by the manufacturer may be different from that ascribed by the retailer.  Product descriptions themselves can and often do vary across channels.  Consistency in identification, therefore, is the first task in assuring findability via search and facilitating visitor certitude.

Once you’ve looked at search and meta-tagging, turn your attention to the browse path.  The “path to certitude” checklist depends on what’s being sold, but the typical pieces of information in a typical product-based site would include: features/benefits, demos/ videos, specs/dimensions, colors/ swatches, views/details, options/customization, comparisons, ratings/reviews.   If you haven’t provided information to address the certitude needs of every visitor, you have given many of them a reason to abandon your site.

But there is a back-up plan.  It’s called policy.  A site like Zappos realizes that the key element in shoe-buying is fit.  Zappos also knows that it is impossible to convey fit as part of the shopping experience, yet, fit is essential for a shopper to reach certitude in shoe buying.  So what does Zappos do?  Zappos eliminates all the risk involved in buying shoes that do not fit by offering free shipping and free returns – for a year!  Zappos’ success has proven that online shoppers do not have to reach certitude if the site’s policies shift the consequences of an erroneous decision from the shopper back to the site.

To take the issue of certitude full circle — which is to say, back to the store shopper armed with a smart phone – the site manager must also think of the mobile visitor’s need for certitude by optimizing his site for mobile access or, better still, creating a pure mobile site.

So, the takeaways for retail website managers are:

  • Check your products for consistency of identification and align your meta-tags appropriately.
  • Check that you have provided every piece of product information that any visitor type would need in order to reach certitude.
  • Review your policies to see if you have done all you reasonably (and logically) can to shorten the path to certitude by shifting the burden of risk onto your own shoulders.
  • Create a pure mobile experience to facilitate certitude for the mobile shopper, too.

–Todd Luckey, Senior Usability Analyst

–Roger Beynon, CSO


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