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PC World

Online stores not meeting customer needs

March 1, 1999
Web posted at: 6:10 p.m. EST (2310 GMT)

by David Needle

(IDG) -- Some of the most popular online stores have a lot to learn about creating an effective Web site for consumers, according to a new research report.

In fact, they could learn from brick-and-mortar retailers, says Shelley Taylor, president of Taylor & Associates. Web shops would do well to apply traditional retail knowledge to their sites, she says.

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"I found there is a real disconnect between the physical and the virtual store experience," Taylor says. The research firm evaluated 50 online stores representing a cross section of technology, books and music, entertainment, apparel, sporting goods, travel, and leisure.

"A lot of sites look like they were developed by people with a great understanding of technology, but not of user interface," says Taylor. Her firm evaluated each site using 175 criteria. "We think there is too high a focus on animation and high-end browsers that most users don't need. Also, there is very little help for new visitors."

Only 2 of the 50 company sites provides a reduced-bandwidth or text-only option, Taylor notes.

Sites ranking highest in terms of content and store features are CDNow, Barnes and Noble, Brainplay, Lands' End, and Blockbuster. Sites from some well-known companies, such as Apple Computer, were dinged for things like burying navigation below the screen so the user must scroll down to find it. Also, it can be difficult to find all the e-commerce components of some sites, Taylor's researchers note. They found this especially true for very full sites, such as Disney, which features myriad content as well as products and services for sale.

Other findings of frequent foibles included:

  • Insufficient search help. Only a third of the sites offered instructions in how to search.

  • Missing "contextual navigation," the Web equivalent of "you are here." Only 4 of the 50 sites offered this.

  • Too many requests for profile information. Ten percent of the sites required the user to complete forms before getting at anything. "Prequalification should be irrelevant in an e-commerce site," says Taylor. "Why put up a barrier to entry?"

  • Not enough quality assurance. Seventy percent of the sites offered some form of return policy or quality assurance information. Taylor maintains this is a must for all e-commerce sites.

  • Next-day delivery options too rare. Only 20 percent of the sites offered this.

Better shopping cart

One staple of popular shopping sites is the shopping cart, but vendors could improve it, says information architect Harry Max, who contributed to the research report. Users should be able to see their shopping cart and the items in it on every page they visit on a Web site, Max says.

Among his other recommendations for shopping carts, already found on some sites:

  • The ability to save your shopping cart for later retrieval.

  • A total price that includes shipping costs upfront.

  • Automatic availability or back-order information when an item is selected.

  • Automatic recalculation of pending purchases.

What's in a URL?

Lack of recognizable URLs is another barrier to greater consumer acceptance of online shopping, the study found. The vast majority of the 50 sites studied have a recognizable URL.

But not all vendors have the luxury of a URL that precisely matches their company name. For example, the pioneering Virtual Vineyards wine and gift-buying site actually is only accessible at and An unrelated search engine company owns the Web address, so someone looking for wine there faces immediate confusion.

Similarly, getting to the Vitamin Shoppe ( requires you to know how to spell it. Contrary to its name, takes you to an Internet domain-naming site.

Billion here, trillion there

Many analysts believe e-commerce is the "killer app" that will drive Internet use to many times what it is today. But Taylor warns that e-commerce sites must improve their features and accessibility. Otherwise, Web surfers will migrate to the biggest brand-name sites and smaller players will lose out.

Whichever sites end up as the winners and losers, a big disparity exists among e-commerce revenue projections. E-commerce revenues will reach the tidy sum of $349 billion by 2002, according to Taylor. Earlier this week, Intel officials predicted that annual e-commerce revenues would top one trillion dollars for the same year.

Microsoft opens doors on online shopping site
February 26, 1999
The Web-coupon craze continues
February 19, 1999
Louvre to launch online gift shop
February 16, 1999
Shop the Web -- by phone
February 4, 1999

European grocers offer shopping via PDA
Online shoppers show mixed feelings
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Shopping on the Web: A cautionary tale
What happens when e-commerce goes wrong?

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Shelley Taylor & Associates
CD Now
Barnes and Noble
Land's End

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