In Plain Sight

Consumers tend to have tunnel vision when they shop: They focus on their goals, ignoring everything else. Likewise, businesses tend to have tunnel vision when they design: They focus only on the things they care about, often missing what’s important to the customer. At the Annual Catalog Conference (cosponsored by Catalog Age and the Direct Marketing Association) this past May, we saw how the disparate tunnel visions of customers and marketers can lead to millions of potential dollars in e-commerce revenue going unrealized.

During the Annual Catalog Conference, my company, Creative Good, randomly selected catalogers to participate in 11 one-hour listening labs. During each of the 11 sessions, Creative Good senior consultant Elizabeth Peaslee moderated while an attendee shopped and a roomful of attendees observed. Customers visited consumer sites such as those of,, Mikasa, and Hammacher Schlemmer, along with those of business-to-business sites such as Bob Barker, Construction Book, Computer Gear, and Quartermaster Uniforms.

Attendees learned a number of things about customer behavior and experience. For instance, when a customer or prospect is shopping online, he most likely isn’t taking in the delightful colors on the background of the home page or the pleasing combination of type fonts. He is focusing on finding the product he wants or needs, and little else. If site elements are not in the context of the customer’s focus, they are likely invisible — in other words, outside his tunnel vision.

What that means to you as an online marketer: Even as companies use advanced selling tools and methodologies, you must still concentrate on making it easy for Website visitors to find the merchandise they’re looking for and on ensuring that they can complete the purchase decision.

Learning by example

See’s Candies was, like almost all the other sites we tested, doing some things right and some things wrong. For example, See’s does a good job of providing a clear picture of its chocolate assortments, showing what the candy looks like inside the boxes. One of its competitors does not do this effectively, leaving the customer who was testing that site at the conference to wonder exactly what candy came in each box.

So when the customer visited the See’s site, he was pleased. He could see the candy. But — and this surprised everyone — the customer also wanted to see a view of the closed, wrapped box. This was important to the customer because he wanted to see what it would look like as a gift.

To make matters worse, the customer couldn’t even find mention of the gift-wrap option, leaving him to believe that it didn’t exist. As a result, though See’s won over the customer initially with its concise but informative product descriptions and photos, the basic mistakes in merchandising and page design kept him from making a purchase.

While See’s basic product descriptions quickly communicate necessary info, Hammacher Schlemmer’s product pages drown in text. Customers become overwhelmed. In many cases, the text extends well below the fold, or bottom of the screen, causing customers to scroll repeatedly to locate the “add to cart” button.

What Hammacher does not realize is that customers do not read while they shop; they scan. This is why the best online product pages are designed with summary bullets in language crafted to sell the benefits and features most important to the buyers.

Amazon’s product pages used to be the standard for best practices. They feature bullets and summary text to help the shopper make a purchase decision. But as we saw in our labs at the conference, during the past few years Amazon has added so many features and elements that its product pages are now overwhelming, especially for new-to-Amazon customers.

On the Big Kids Video site, the product pages lack important purchase decision information, such as links to artist bios, song samples, and customer reviews. This information is especially crucial for shoppers unfamiliar with the product line (videos and DVDs for youngsters) and with children’s products in general. Further, the product images are small and cannot be enlarged when clicked.

Smart Bargains does a better job with its product pages. Summary text and bullet points help the buyer make a purchase decision, while key benefits such as low shipping costs are clearly promoted. The product pages also successfully highlight savings with the judicious use of red text.

Smart Home, which sells home automation products, also does things right. Bullets list crucial product information, and the customer who visited the site during the lab liked the links to the owner’s manuals that appeared in the navigation box on the top right-hand side of the product pages.

The Smart Home site could stand some improvement, though. Lengthy product text below the bullets pushes the price well below the fold. And if a customer actually finds the price, the presentation is confusing: It is unclear if pricing relates to the product on the page or to related accessories. Finally, merchandise cross-sells on this site are hard to decipher. They are lost in a clutter of buttons and text.

In the b-to-b segment, Bob Barker, which sells to correctional facilities, is a standout. Its product pages feature concise bullet points, making descriptions easy to scan. And clear product images, color swatches, and prominent size information help customers to make a purchase decision.

Watch and listen

Want to be more successful online? Observe customers using your product or service. You will learn what falls within customer tunnel vision and what customers don’t care about. You will learn counter-intuitive needs — for instance, that the owner’s manual that no one reads after a purchase can be useful before a purchase, or that photos of both an open and closed gift box are important.

Customers must be the focus of any successful strategy. This might seem obvious, but many companies miss the fact: Forrester Research reported that only 25% of U.S. companies conduct any kind of customer research. Moreover, Bain & Co. reports that 80% of successful strategies come from insights into customer behavior.

The Annual Catalog Conference labs focused primarily on tactical interface-level issues. Yet private listening labs, run properly, unveil both strategic insights and tactical observations. You should conduct them before establishing a strategy for a new store, Website, or catalog, and you should ensure that a large cross-section of employees attend.

The hundreds of attendees who observed the labs at the conference and participated in the final wrap-up session left with a consensus about their businesses: Allow customers and their behavior to dictate how you can best improve their shopping experience. After all, the customer who visits your site wants nothing more than to be able to find and purchase, then and there, the product he’s looking for. And that’s pretty much what you want him to do too.

Phil Terry is CEO of Creative Good, a New York-based strategic customer-experience consultancy.

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