Online retail guide: The checkout process

Neoworks provides four easy-to-follow steps to improve your toy retail website's checkout process.
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The checkout process is one of the most important parts of any e-commerce website, because it is where you convert visits into sales.

It is also one of the most difficult aspects to get right, especially in the toy industry where Christmas represents a giant peak in sales and a high volume of customer service contacts. 

This is an amazing time of the year and it is getting close, so now it is time to check if you have followed the recommended best practices in your checkout pages.

1. Keep it simple. Keep it quick.

A good checkout should allow the customer to place their order quickly and with a minimum of fuss. It is important that users of your site do not have to think too much, each decision point may result in a customer leaving your site and you losing a sale.

Think carefully about the information that you ask for. The user should only need to enter the information required for the sale and never make them enter the same thing twice. For example, allow them to use the same address for billing and delivery. 

Address data is constantly changing and address databases are often out of date. When dealing with address information, never assume that you know better than the customer. If you use an address lookup tool on your site always allow your customer to edit the results.

Finally, when collecting credit card date information, present the date in the same format that appears on most credit cards - don't use month names, use numbers. This requires no mental effort to convert between the formats and is easier for the user to check.

Studies have shown that one of the biggest causes of basket abandonment is a requirement to register an account. 

Most people these days have a large number of usernames and passwords and it's off-putting to be asked to create yet another account. 

Account creation should be compared to asking your customers to fill in a form at the till in shop – it is damaging. However, it is often convenient for an online store to remember details for return visits. Make this optional and unobtrusive, perhaps by asking for a password on the confirmation page at the end of checkout.

2. Know your customer.

Many companies strive to differentiate their website from that of their competitors and so not all checkouts are the same. To get the checkout on your website right it's important to really get to know your customer's shopping habits.

Identify your key customers and ensure that they get the best checkout experience. Be careful not to damage the experience of the majority by trying to please the few. For example, if you offer many delivery options place the most popular at the top of the list and set it as the default.

If you know that most of your customers do not have a registered account, move the login box out of the way. Reduce the amount of work for your customers by doing the most common tasks for them. Good sources of information include historical order data and analytics packages such as Google Analytics.

3. Encourage trust.

Buying online can be an unnerving experience for some but there are a number of things you can to do encourage trust in your site. 

The simplest and most important thing you can do is provide a contact address and phone number - you have to seriously question purchasing from any company that would hide this information. 

Consider also displaying a contact phone number during checkout. If something goes wrong it will be reassuring to the customer to know that they can speak to a customer services representative at any time.

Payment, and particularly payment failure, is another very important area to consider. The payment industry regularly introduces new anti-fraud processes and these can often be confusing for customers. 

Take for example Verified by Visa/Mastercard Securecode, the pop-up window from your bank that asks for additional information. Whilst the credit card companies insist that this system is important to prevent fraud, to a customer it could look like a phishing attempt.

Work with your design team to integrate these processes into your checkout so that the customer understands and trusts what they are being asked to do.

Promoting trust should also continue after the checkout process is complete. Always make sure that you send confirmation and dispatch emails to keep your customer informed. This is particularly important during the busy season. 

4. Test, test and test again.

Perhaps more than in any other area of an e-commerce website, robustness in the checkout is key. Even the smallest problem during checkout can ruin a relationship with a customer and so thorough testing is critical. 

Ensure that all error paths are tested as well as the "happy" path. For example make sure that you are happy with any messages displayed after a failed payment or general system error.

The checkout process will often require integration with many other systems, such as payment providers or fulfilment and warehouse systems. Think about what happens when these systems misbehave or are unavailable.

Consider how a failed checkout can be recovered and if it can't, how you can persuade the customer to return to complete the sale. 

Hopefully you have all this working properly and you are ready for Christmas sales. 

Don't forget that a nice checkout is the beginning of a relation post-sale with your customer, and returning customers are usually more profitable than one-off sales.

About the author

Tom Greasley is senior software developer at Neoworks – the e-commerce people.

There is a wealth of further more technically specific information that might be of interest at

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