Getting Mom Online

Man in the produce aisle: Grabs some fruit, throws it in a plastic bag (no twisty), tosses in shopping cart. Total elapsed time: about 15 seconds.

Woman in the produce aisle: Keeps eyes peeled for specials, approaches accordingly, examines each piece of fruit, carefully inspects for imperfections, sniffs, squeezes, puts in plastic bag (with twisty), places in shopping cart. Total elapsed time: about 5 minutes.

An exaggeration? Perhaps, but the truth is, Mars and Venus also live at the checkout counter.

Men and women are known to have contrasting shopping styles — the conventional wisdom holds that women touch and feel, men see and buy — and these differences now appear to be surfacing at the electronic shopping cart as well.

Until recently, the Internet population was male, by a hefty 3 to 1 margin. In a nod to where the money was, web retailers catered to this first generation of online shoppers by dishing up an assortment of computer goodies and high-tech gadgets.

Today, however, it’s a different story. This past spring, Media Metrix reported that women now make up half of all U.S. adult Internet users and are expected to comprise the majority by 2002. It’s the culmination of a trend that’s been growing for some time. As women continue to gravitate to the web for its community, communications and content, they’re also discovering another online diversion — shopping.

The discovery is as logical as it is inevitable – working women, especially moms, are busy. Internet shopping is a time-saving alternative to the mall that enables harried moms to buy what they need quickly and affordably.

Shopping itself is the unquestioned clarion call to the web. A new survey by CyberShopper reveals that 53 percent of Internet users have purchased something online. Although women will account for slightly more than half of the $12 billion expected to be spent online in 1999, by rights that figure should be substantially higher. Study after study shows that women control household budgets and make the spending decisions for the entire family.

So when — if ever — will the Internet resemble the bricks-and-mortar world? Making the web an inviting place remains one of the critical hurdles online merchants face. If they’re not already, they should be scrambling to answer the question that has plagued mankind since time began.

What do women want?

How do we tame the wild beast, implement a kinder, gentler interface, and make online shopping more appealing to all Internet shoppers, especially the newest to join the ranks — moms? It isn’t just that retailing must expand to goods and services beyond electronics gadgets, CDs, sporting goods, and other guy stuff.

It’s how sites are built, how they sell, and how they draw shoppers in.

For all of the recent activity among women shoppers, the prevailing Internet shopping model continues to be male. If the basic premise is valid — that women want to leave the house because they enjoy shopping, while men can shop online, check their stocks and take in the NFL at the same time — things must change if Internet shopping is to attract and hold the mass market.

  • Navigation: It’s a Jungle Out There

    The key to a successful online shopping experience is being able to find what you’re looking for. Accomplished web surfers might be familiar with frames, drop-down menus, and search tools, but newcomers are likely be intimidated.

    Web designers need to ask themselves these questions when developing a retail site:

    • How many clicks away is an item?

    • Can product information be easily retrieved?
    • Is the site visually cramped?
    • How are specials and sale items presented?
    • Is there a community behind the site, and if so, how accessible is it?
    • Is the experience personalized?
    • Does the site communicate “customer service”?

    In short, how does the site feel? And why would Mom want to shop here?

  • The Need for Speed (“The Eight-Second Rule”)

    Patience is a virtue, but most web shoppers have been conditioned not to have it. Fully a third of online shoppers waiting for web pages to download will bail after only eight seconds, according to a report by Zona Research.

    In the aggregate, this flightiness is costing web merchants more than $73 million a month. Indeed, if shoppers (read: women) are to enjoy the luxury of browsing online, sites must be lightning fast.

    Poorly conceived graphics-intensive sites and increased web traffic are responsible for slow load times. The underlying bandwidth problem will be resolved incrementally, not in one millennial moment. In the meantime, e-tailers would be wise to add some torque to their sites, to give shoppers reason to stick around for the real stuff.

  • The Gimme Factor

    Web site effectiveness was once measured by the number of hits. Today, it’s measured by product churn, just like in a “real store.”

    Online consumers are smitten with the gimme factor, to wit: “I’m here at your web site, now make it worth my while to buy something.”

    More than half of all online consumers are willing to make more purchases on the Net if e-commerce sites offer points or incentives, according to a study by online market researcher NFO Interactive. Gifts, airline miles, gift certificates and cash were named as the most desired rewards.

    Incentive programs, when used strategically online, are proving to be a successful tool to cultivate customer loyalty and repeat purchases. Cash back offers underscore the convenience and value proposition of online shopping, and can help defray the costs of shipping.

  • Check Out or Bail Out?

    Web shoppers seem to have overcome concerns about security. A whopping 95 percent of consumers said they would not hesitate to give their credit card number over the Internet, according to a new study cited in USA Today.

    That’s a far cry from the historic skittishness about the perils of hacking. Still, there is mileage in fully neutralizing concerns over security and privacy. The best shopping sites offer additional guarantees against credit card fraud or perceived loss.

    So what’s to prevent online shoppers from completing a purchase?

    The check-out process. Some web retailers have perfected this end game of the shopping experience, easily guiding the buyer through a couple of simple steps. In other cases, closing the deal is a nightmare. It’s still commonplace to hear of online shoppers who’ve literally pulled the plug, abandoning a shopping cart filled with carefully selected goodies because they couldn’t access the check out page.

    The lesson to web retailers: Check-out must be as foolproof online as it is at the corner grocery.

    Online retailing is at a crossroads — booming, yes, but still deemed experimental or mysterious or off-limits to its largest potential constituency.

    Web merchants have almost unlimited bounty to offer, at genuinely low prices. If they’re vigilant at providing a fast and easy method for navigation, incentive programs, an attractive display, and quick, reliable checkout, moms will beat a path to their home pages.

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