Minor tweaks to transactional websites can have a major impact on customer engagement and conversion rates.

Websites can seem complicated to anyone without a computer science degree, but the principles on which they are built and the methods employed to sell via them are often surprisingly close to those used in-store.

The technical basis of payment processes and online systems are generally best left to the professionals, but you don’t need the technological know-how to work out the changes that can boost sales.

Reality check

“The first thing I tell people is to treat their website like their store front,” says Virgin Media technical lead and online consultant Iain Buchanan. “The main misconception I encounter is that online is different from the real world.”

The other universal basic is that retailers need to make sure their payments process is as easy as possible. But beyond that, rules that should be followed are difficult to stipulate. Each retailer has a different audience and will need to spend time working out the best way to sell to it.

This is where online retail has an advantage over selling in-store. Detailed feedback means it’s possible to work out the best combination of elements for each website - if customers are abandoning goods at the checkout in high numbers, for instance, there’s a fairly high chance something needs changing at that point on the site.

Majestic Wine ecommerce director Richard Weaver says: “One of the great things about the web is that everything is trackable. We have these fantastic analytics that bricks-and-mortar retailers would kill for.”

Once the basics are in place, seemingly insignificant tweaks to the design and placement of products and offers on even the best performing websites can make small changes to conversion rates - which, over time, can mean big improvements to sales.

Social sites

Testing the effects of these changes will need old-fashioned research. Barnaby Moffat, managing director of web design company Foresite, advises showing 500 visitors one version of your site and 500 another version, and seeing which one sells more.

One aspect of online shopping that is sometimes overlooked is the significance of psychology. The psychology of in-store shopping is widely accepted and much time

and attention is spent tapping into it. But the psychology of online shopping is equally significant. Analysing this in greater depth can give retailers an idea of which aspects of their websites need to change (see box).

Other tips for improving your ecommerce offer include investigating social bookmarking and sharing. Buchanan says most social aspects of ecommerce improve conversion rates. Wish lists are one example, allowing people to bookmark something they want to return to later and letting them register interest in a product, while the Facebook Like button has produced excellent results for many retailers.

Route to sales

Neil Fitzpatrick, ecommerce manager at clothing company Route One, says the button has been a “huge success” for the company because “it helps people make up their minds”. He explains: “If they see 158 people like it, it will improve their perception of the product and it improves the whole conversion process.” Visitors from Facebook to Route One’s site have risen by more than 100% since the retailer started using it. Signing up to PayPal has also improved sales for the company - Route One’s ecommerce provider Snow Valley says it increases consumer confidence and is a sensible step for most sites.

As an accepted level of best practice begins to emerge for the web design basics, the most successful sites are using ever more creative ways to boost sales and engagement. Approaching it in a scientific way, trying new ideas and testing responses, can have a big impact on sales in the longer term - without drastically changing anything.

Online Psychology

Social validation

People want to feel as though they belong and will often make decisions based on what others do. In the online world, that means the Facebook Like button on a product can help conversion statistics and Amazon-style reviews can help lift sales. Customers will often say they are sceptical of social networks as overt sales tools, or of commenting facilities, but it does have an effect on what they buy. It allows people to associate themselves with a product and show it to their social circle, and this can boost a product in other consumers’ minds.


Some online selling tactics rely on the idea of reciprocity, which involves companies giving consumers something in the hope that they will feel indebted and want to give something back. Sam Menter, consultant at user experience consultancy Pixel Thread, says giving someone something - such as free delivery or 20% off - starts a relationship with them, making them feel more positive towards a company.


Making it clear when stocks are running low can make it much easier to shift the final units. Products often become more valuable or desirable as availability gets more limited, and there are plenty of opportunities to exploit this online. Offering too much choice can also be overwhelming for customers.


Trust can be a difficult thing to build on the web, especially with some consumers only just getting used to inputting credit card details online.

As soon as customers see a retailer hasn’t been honest about product details or delivery costs they will stop coming back and the website’s return rates will plummet.


Engaging people emotionally can have a big impact on how a retailer is perceived and the web plays an increasing part in a customer’s overall response to and interaction with a brand. One thing that will contribute in a positive way to this is well-shot, large images of a product that can be zoomed in on. “If their experience of the website overall is positive, they will feel more positive towards the brand and product,” says Menter.

Source: Pixel Thread