Cleanup In Aisle Nine

Attention, e-businesses. According to a recent IntelliQuest survey, 22.5 million adults had shopped for a product online over three months, yet only 11 percent bought a product online during that same period.

The statistics don’t get much better if you’re trying to market to kids. Jupiter and custom market researcher NFO Interactive found that a majority of kids and teens window-shopped on the Internet, but fewer than 10 percent of the 600 survey respondents actually made purchases in any category. (Report made available to Reuters during Jupiter’s annual Digital Kids conference.)

Earlier this year, Jupiter Communications released a report stating that one out of four potential online buyers abandon their orders before checkout. And the conversion rate statistic (the percentage of shoppers who actually make a purchase) is averaging about 1 percent.

If bricks-and-mortar stores were anything like their online equivalents are purported to be, we might expect to see a mass exodus of empty-handed people snaking past aisles filled with abandoned shopping carts.

But, as we all know, the offline world has plenty of shoppers who actually buy stuff. In fact, it’s downright unusual to walk into a store and leave without buying more than you anticipated.

So what gives?

Let’s take a specific example. Although I’ve often thought about the obvious customer-service-and-retention lessons that e-businesses can learn from offline counterparts (past ClickZ articles have touched on the subject “The Little Things That Make A Difference“, I never bothered to make my very own “lifestyle” comparison until last weekend.

It was late on Sunday evening, and I suddenly found myself in need of buying paint. So, without really thinking, I hopped in my car and drove to my favorite orange-hued home improvement warehouse. The thought never occurred to me to try buying paint online. And besides, I’ve got three young kids. Doing this alone is like a mini-vacation.

I instinctively reached for a shopping cart that was waiting outside the entrance, and I stepped into the store’s familiar sounds and smells that have comforted me in my years as a homeowner. An employee looked up from her clipboard, smiled, and said hello. I liked this place. I know its strengths and weaknesses. I know when to stay away (don’t go near the place Sunday morning) and the best times to shop (you’ve practically got the place to yourself during cowboy games).

I had a general sense of where everything is, thanks to aisles marked with large banners. I looked for “Paint,” and I was on my way. But wait. I passed the “Hardware” aisle and an end cap stocked with utility knives. On sale. I remembered that my last utility knife is broken, I think. What the heck, they’re cheap, and you can’t have too many utility knives. I placed it in my shopping cart.

As I turned down the hardware aisle toward the paint section, I daydreamed about having a million dollars and buying up every darned tool in the place, all shiny and new. They would remain resting in their proper place, in my three-car garage and hanging on pegboard. I awoke to a smartly placed stack of batteries. Thousands of them. All sizes. My brain was working overtime. Surely, I needed all of these. I have flashlights at home. And toys. Lots of toys. I threw two 8-packs of AAs in my cart.

I reached the paint aisle and gave the paint steward my order: Ralph Lauren “Plantation,” one quart, flat, interior. I handed him a swatch. He looked at the paint sample and highly recommended that I use semi-gloss on interior surfaces, especially in kitchens where splatters can occur. Splatters. That’s me. I’m sold. He told me that it will take 10 minutes and spins away.

No problem. I used that time to select brushes, which are immediately behind me, next to the painter’s tape. It’s all there in front of me and I placed what I need in my cart. Well, except the drop cloths. I asked for assistance and was met after a minute or two by the store’s apparent drop-cloth expert. He told me that it should be two aisles down and to my right. After a moment, I found the row of drop cloths. They were not exactly where they should be, but I’m okay with that. After all, I’m on vacation here.

I walked back to paint, picked up my awaiting quart, and headed to the checkout counter. This is usually the part I dread. The waiting, the Bataan Death March at the checkout line. I’m always the one stuck behind a guy needing a price check on metric galvanized finishing nails or someone with an unreasonable demand like having the clerk count the number of knots in the lumber. But this time is different. I have just enough time to peruse the strategically placed rack of home improvement knickknacks. Hmm, yes, I think I do need a new set of bits for my interchangeable screwdriver. In the cart they go.

I wrote a check for my stuff and, as I was leaving, the checkout guy tapped me on the shoulder, handed me my wallet, and said, “Sir . . . thanks. Come back and see us.”

On my way home, I thought about checking out my favorite home improvement store’s web site, about how they could benefit online from all the little things that they do offline. Like putting their shopping carts up front. Like greeting me at the door. Like making it easy to find my way around, and effectively yet subtly placing products in front of me, even if I don’t really need them. Like assisting me when I have a question or when I can’t find something, or giving me helpful advice based on my purchase decisions. Like making the actual buying experience as easy as signing my name. Like saying “thank you” before I leave and personally inviting me back.

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