user-friendlyThe busiest online trading period of the year is now upon us, reaching its peak earlier than the high street, around the beginning or middle of December. Another important date for many online retailers is the 25th December when eager bargain hunters will be ready to make the most of the sales whilst high street shops stay closed.

Figures tell us that online spending is continuously growing despite the country’s economic slowdown. The trend seems to be that we may be spending less money on Christmas presents but more people will use the internet to purchase their gifts. With 76% of the EU population now using the internet and 64% of those users having made a purchase online (figures from the European Commission), today’s e-commerce sites need to accommodate for a more diverse customer base within a very competitive marketplace.

In order to maximise sales in the run up to Christmas it is therefore vital for online retailers to have implemented an efficient usability strategy for their checkout process. If the website’s checkout process is not clear and easy to use, the online retailer may find a great number of potential customers abandoning their baskets somewhere during this process. Here are some general guidelines on how to make online shopping a more pleasant and successful experience for users:

Basket or checkout links – Users will expect to easily and quickly find either a ‘proceed to checkout’ link or a ‘view basket’ button. Such a link needs to be in a prominent place above the fold. If it fits into the site’s design it should be included at the top and bottom of all pages.
Registration & login – For ease of use, customers should be able to use their email address as their user ID and for first time buyers the same form should be used for ordering and registering for an account. Keep required form fields to a minimum and don’t force customers to create an account before they can add items to the basket.
Additional charges – Display shipping and tax charges early on to save customers from a last minute (nasty) surprise.
Delivery – At this time of year your delivery details should clearly display when purchases have to be made for pre-Christmas delivery.
Progress bar – It is helpful to know where you are in the checkout process, what the next step is and how many steps are left to complete the purchase. Customers also like to see the basket and delivery charges throughout the process.
Distractions – Cross selling and heavy marketing during the checkout only acts as an unnecessary distraction. When customers reach this point they should be left to carry on with their purchase.
Flexible payment option – Apart from standard card payments, offer other payment options like PayPal and Google checkout. Customers will appreciate being able to use their preferred choice of payment.
Bring confidence to the buyer by clearly displaying contact information so they know that they can get hold of a human being should something go wrong. Clearly explain delivery details, your security policy and provide sufficient assistance when an error is made. If a purchase is cancelled there should be a clear message showing that a purchase has not been made.

Conforming to accessibility guidelines, like those mentioned above, will not only make the website available to more users but make the site easier to use by everyone. By keeping the site and checkout process simple (but professional) in design and technology you should be left with a stable and fast website compatible with different browsers and versions – and as a result the site will accommodate a wider customer base.

There are many general rules and guidelines that should be applied to a checkout process – but there is not one perfect checkout template suitable for all e-commerce sites. Shopping habits vary between customers and our shopping habits also change over time. Optimising a checkout process is an ongoing procedure that should be continuously fine-tuned with the help of testing, analytics and customer feedback.

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