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Online shops don't help us shop online - no wonder conversion rates are terrible.

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Why are users so scared to pull the trigger on an online purchase? If they need/want the thing, why not just buy it? The reassurance hypothesis states that shops are not doing everything they can to advise people during an online purchase, leading to low conversion.

Somewhere in the multiverse is a planet the size of Earth, every inch of it filled with abandoned online shopping carts. Their value: $4.6 trillion, but that’s just the carts on the continent called ‘2016’.

With an average 77% of retail orders abandoned in Q2 2017, our collective online purchasing anxiety is not letting up. The topic has been written about extensively for decades — pretty much since we first started not buying stuff online. Plenty of cart abandonment (read: retargeting) solutions have been presented, but they’ve barely made a dent in the overall abandonment rate. In fact, over the years it has only gone up.

So, the question remains: Why are we so scared to pull the trigger on an online purchase? If we need/want the thing, why not just buy it?

Because the cost of shipping is too high. Because the payment process is too complicated. Because we need to create an account. Because a webshop doesn’t have some quality mark or other. Because we don’t have our creditcard on us. Because we didn’t need/want the thing after all.

All of those reasons are valid, and they fit perfectly well with the quantitative, incremental thinking that is prevalent in e-commerce today. Allow me to present an additional theory. Let’s call it the reassurance hypothesis. Simply put: if shops are not doing everything they can to advise people during an online purchase, how are those people ever going to feel confident enough to actually go through with said purchase? This is the qualitative side of the purchasing anxiety coin.

I’ve touched on the subject of quality vs. quantity before, but it’s worth expanding on here.

It starts with one simple truth: Webshops are built to list products. Whether you’re a pure player, a small specialist, or a retail giant, your day-to-day e-commerce practice is concerned with putting as many products as possible in a product catalogue, and subsequently making that catalogue searchable on your website or app. That last step usually involves lots of categories, subcategories and filters (oh, the filters!), meaning that the resulting user experience tends to look something like this:

where my filters at

As it turns out, the way we’ve built our online shops is not actually conducive to online shopping. “Here’s a list of our products, you figure out which one works for you.” Hello, purchasing anxiety!

With that, a simple truth suddenly becomes a hard one: if the basic underlying foundations (the technology, the business model, as well as the entire e-commerce organisation) are all structured around listing products — rather than helping users buy — a quick fix for the resulting conversion issues seems impossible. It’s no wonder that the main e-commerce players are focused on incremental improvements and auxiliary services as a way to improve their bottom line.

Luckily, lots of seemingly impossible things aren’t actually that. Assuming there’s some truth to the reassurance hypothesis, what could a possible solution look like? For me, it starts with an important and oft-asked question that we ditched in the move from retail to etail:

“Hello, can I help you find anything?”

I believe that this question should be central to any upcoming e-commerce developments. It expresses a focus on quality over quantity, and it underlines the value of expert knowledge in helping people make buying decisions. And, like in-store, it can be ignored by those who already know what they need.

Not convinced? Consider that the #1 reason people still go to offline stores is for the advice and assistance that’s available there (see the PwC Total Retail survey for more on this). And if you’ve ever went out to buy anything big, pricey, or complicated, you’ll know that purchasing advice is a common sense and effective way to alleviate purchasing anxiety.

What a focus on advice will mean in digital practice (chatbots, live chat, product advisors, or a completely blank slate for e-commerce tech) remains to be seen. But it sure beats asking yourself how many carts a product has been in before it ended up in yours 😉.

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