User experience comparison: Online stores vs. Real stores


This one has been hanging on my drafts list for a while. Kind of lost track of thought during writing this and I never got around to writing about all the points I intended to… but there’s still some interesting thoughts here so I decided to post it anyway :)

While shopping for groceries the other day, I came up with an interesting idea: How do real stores compare to online stores, in terms of user experience? What affects it and how they compare in online and real stores.

For example, how easy it is to find the products you want, how quickly you can determine things such as price or size. Also, how easy it’s for the owner of the store to place products in a way that users might buy them even if they didn’t intend to, aka window shopping.

Since “traditional” real stores have been around a lot longer than online ones, we should be able to learn something from them, right?

The first look

They say the first minute or so is the most important factor in determining what someone thinks about you. This can apply to stores as well – if you want to buy fashion clothing, you might be turned off if the store looked really bad. This applies to both cases, but perhaps even more in the online world. If a website looks really amateurish and such, the customers may not feel safe to pay there with their credit cards for example.

In real life, there’s also one more thing: The look and manners of the store employees. Online you won’t need to worry about how your employees look, because your customers will very rarely interact with one directly.

Product placement

Product placement means much. Products must be visible and easy to reach. It also would be a good idea to place them in some kind of order which makes sense – computers in one area, games in the next and so on. These usually aren’t problem online, since you can just put a few categories and be done with it, but in real life it may require some planning. Visibility could also be linked to finding products – if you’re looking for something specific, you can usually ask an employee if you can’t find it; online you need a search form, which should be easy to use and give relevant results.

Real stores put most commonly bought items in the back to make you see as many other things you might unintentionally end up buying because you saw them. Would it work to make people scroll through a ton of items in an online store to reach the product they might want to buy? I don’t think so.

The checkout

When you have the items you want, in real life you would proceed to the checkout counter, perhaps queue for a while and put the items on a conveyor. Then if you’re paying with cash, you hand that over, or give your credit/debit card and that’s usually about it.

Online it’s often more difficult. First, you have to decide which of the payment methods you want to use. Credit card, PayPal, Money order, Bank transfer?

Personally I find PayPal the simplest of them all, and it’s a good model for the others too: Simply follow the link from the seller to PayPal, log in, confirm that you want to pay whatever you’re buying and that’s it. That is, of course, if you have previously set up your card in PayPal or have money there.

The other options are less optimal, as at least for me if I wish to pay in a store with my card, I need to look up my online banking codes as the card requires Verified by Visa in most places. Using bank transfers would also require you to do that, and sending money in an envelope or cheques requires you to wait for the letter to arrive etc. etc.