Why People Shop on the Web

by Jakob Nielsen on February 7, 1999

A recent study of users who have bought products on the Web has three important findings with implications for Web design:

  • Convenience and ease of use are the main reasons people buy at websites
  • Shoppers only buy 5% of the time they visit e-commerce sites: facilitate product research, cross-shopping, and other non-buying tasks that account for 95% of visits if you want to turn people into loyal users
  • E-commerce is going international, with many users buying from foreign sites (this latter conclusion is less true for American customers who mainly buy from domestic sites, but it has profound implications for American vendors who can sell a lot overseas if they bother to serve international customers)

The results come from a survey sponsored by the Danish E-Commerce Association. The survey was completed by 2,929 Internet users in Denmark, of which 1,780 (61%) had actually bought something on the Web. I am only reporting the answers from this latter group of buying users.

Ease of Buying Attracts Customers

Respondents were asked to list the five most important reasons to shop on the Web. Even though low prices definitely do attract customers, pricing was only the third-most important issue for respondents. Most of the answers were related to making it easy, pleasant, and efficient to buy .

Most Important Reasons People Shop on the Web
Easy to place an order 83%
Large selection of products 63%
Cheaper prices 63%
Faster service and delivery 52%
Detailed and clear information about what is being offered 40%
No sales pressure 39%
Easy payment procedures 36%

 

What Information Do You Look For When Buying a Product on the Web?
Detailed information about the product itself 82%
Price comparisons 62%
Detailed information about the vendor 21%

 

Not too surprising, except to note the huge difference in interest between product info and vendor info. On the Web, people are very goal-driven and care more about the specific product they are buying now and less about abstract issues like the characteristics of the company that is supplying that product.

Qualitative research bears this out. For example, the New York Times quotes a VP from a site that sells music CDs: "When we ask customers what they want, they don't answer 'community feeling' or 'shopping experience,' they want more music samples, ease of use, speed, and low prices."

Support Research and Non-Buying Visits

After You Have Deliberately Looked for Information About a Product or Service, How Often Do You Buy It?
Almost always 2%
About 3/4 of the time 14%
About half the time 30%
About 1/4 of the time 45%
Almost never 9%

 

For this question, "buying" was defined to include purchases on the site as well as purchases in physical stores. Note the difficulty of converting even a motivated shopper into a buyer. The average outcome is that people don't buy. This result is even stronger when looking at users' average behavior and not simply their behavior when deliberately looking for product information. When asked why they visited one of the e-commerce sites that sponsored the survey, respondents said:

What Was the Reason for Your Most Recent Visit to [participating site]?
Looking for product information 26%
Looking for other information 32%
Buying goods or services 5%
Entertainment value 18%
Other reasons 18%

 

Remember, these are people who buy online. And yet only 5% of their visits to e-commerce sites are to buy. It is important to support the remaining 95% of customer behavior so that they will turn into loyal users and return to the site when they want to buy.

A site that emphasizes sales too much will turn away users (remember that "no sales pressure" was listed by 39% of shoppers as an important benefit of the Web). Most of the time, users want to research products or find other specific information. So don't despair if your server statistics show many more visits to your pages than actual sales. That's natural and indicates that you are supporting customers' preferred behavior by allowing them to cross-shop and research products before buying.

International Shopping

Location of Websites Where Respondents Shop
Denmark 45%
Rest of Europe 17%
United States 32%
Rest of World 5%

 

Much shopping is obviously local, but there is a good deal of international shopping going on. In particular, American websites are doing brisk business in Denmark and it is interesting to note that the U.S. sells about twice as much as Europe. A clear indication of the need to improve European e-commerce.

American e-commerce strategists should not use this survey as an excuse to rest on their laurels, however. Europe will improve and become more of a competitor in the future. Also, Denmark is somewhat atypical in several ways: it is a very small country with a particularly well-educated population, meaning that Danes are probably more likely than many others to shop at American sites. People in bigger countries will demand local service; people with less foreign-language education will be less likely to shop at English-only sites.

Related Report: E-Commerce User Experience

(Update) See also my report with 207 design guidelines for e-commerce usability . In usability testing of twenty e-commerce websites reported in this publication, we found that users were only capable of buying in 56% of the cases where they attempted a purchase.

Consider the three numbers discussed here:

  • 5% of visitors are interested in buying something during the current visit
  • About half the people who have an interest in buying attempt to do so during the current visit
  • 56% of the people who attempt to buy are capable of struggling through the website's design to a successful completion of their purchase

The result of combining these three numbers is a conversion rate of about 1%, which is indeed a commonly observed number. The biggest long-term potential for increasing the conversion rate would come from motivating visitors to move from lookers to shoppers. However, the Web is notoriously bad at changing users' goals and desires. It is much better at fulfilling existing desires than at creating new ones. Thus, the short-term focus should be on changing shoppers to buyers and on making it possible for users to complete the transaction once they have decided to buy. Fix these two problems and you can quadruple your sales.


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