Optimal Checkout Process for Online Stores

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An optimized and easy to use checkout process is vital to achieving successful sales on an online store. In this article, we will look at: 1) basic checkout process and flow, 2) tips for developing an optimal checkout process, and 3) examples of successful checkout processes.

BASIC CHECKOUT PROCESS AND FLOW

While designing a website for an e-commerce store, it is important to keep the layout accessible, easy to navigate and ensure that there are no extra steps or clutter. The cleaner the interface and the steps involved to finalizing purchases, the more likely a customer is to finish their transaction and return.

One of the key elements to the online shopping experience is the checkout process. If the rest of the site is perfectly designed and the checkout system complicated, it will render the good parts useless. Ensuring ease of use during the checkout process is not an easy task as this is a complex process with a significant number of functions. Though the checkout process technically begins past the shopping cart view, the shopping cart itself is also a key element in the flow and needs to be considered with the rest. The basic functions of key elements in the checkout process are given below.

Shopping Cart

The shopping cart performs some basic functions such as:

  • Itemized view of products in the cart
  • Modifications to items in the cart
  • Switch back to the website to continue shopping
  • Leaving the cart to complete purchase

Reviewing Purchases

This page typically follows the shopping cart and displays the same information for the customer to go through. Information provided here usually includes the name and description of the product along with the price, number of items and total cost. The costs are per item as well as the total cost with tax, and often shipping charges, included.

Account Sign-In

Often, an e-commerce store may ask the customer to create an account or sign-in to an existing one before they can proceed further. It is a great idea to keep this step optional to allow the customer to go through checkout with fewer steps if they chose. It is important to keep the flow clean to ensure that customers do not abandon the shopping cart midway.

Shipping and Payment Information

Once past the review page, the customer now needs to provide shipping and payment information. The form the customer needs to fill in here should be clear and simple with instructions for any common input errors.

Purchase Confirmation

Once all the information is collected, there is usually one last review and confirmation page where the customer can review final total costs and items. Once confirmed, it is good practice to send the customer an email with order number and details for tracking the package through shipping.

TIPS FOR DEVELOPING AN OPTIMAL CHECKOUT PROCESS

Though not a simple process to design, the positive results gained from a clean and simple checkout process are too many to be ignored. By spending some time creating a seamless user experience, an online store can ensure that customers remain happy, and sales continue to happen successfully. Some basic steps can help a store owner design an optimal checkout process.

  • Don’t Force Registration: As mentioned briefly, the registration process can become a tricky one for an online store. It is important to ensure that registration is suggested at the right point in the purchase flow. It should come at some point during checkout and not before. Since the registration form requires time and effort, the customer may be put off by the extra steps. The potential barrier to purchase should be placed much further in the process because the customer is more committed to the purchase then and even during checkout, the registration should be an option not a necessity.
  • Explain Information Requirements: In the registration form, there should not be extra fields asking for seemingly useless or irrelevant information. If such information is requested, the reasons behind it should be communicated clearly to the customer.
  • Be Clear About Item Availability: There should be minimal steps for the customer in order to know whether an item is available or not. Instead, availability information should be clearly mentioned on the product page and also preferably in search result pages. If the item is to be restocked, the date for this should be mentioned, and if possible, a pre-order option made available.
  • Let Customers Modify Orders Easily: People often change their mind about certain items or decide to make minor or major changes to their order. In addition, often during review of the items in the shopping cart, an error can be identified by the customer perhaps in size or color. These modifications should be easy to make and should not become a source of frustration for the customer. A remove or edit button is the best option for this.
  • Ensure That Support is Readily Available: Often, it is a good idea to go beyond a help or an FAQ page. Instead, if possible, telephone assistance or a chat option can help speed up problem resolution for the customer.
  • Make Sure that the Back Button is Functional: The back button available on browsers is an oft used function by most people. Often websites will neglect to take this into account and either fail to save information or give an error. If the back button is used, any information entered should be updated and saved, and the previous page should be displayed without error.
  • Use Clear Instructions: Any buttons or links should be labeled clearly and their function easy to understand. For example, instead of a button saying ‘continue’ there should be one that says ‘continue shopping’ or ‘continue to checkout’. These little steps help avoid confusion and additional steps.
  • Ensure All Product Details in the Shopping Cart: At the shopping cart view and item review pages, there should be details of the products selected. These details should include the item name, a description, a thumbnail photo, size, color or other details as well as a link to the item page on the website.
  • A Progress Indicator is a Good Idea: Since there are various steps involved in the checkout process, it is a good idea to keep the customer updated on how far they have to go. This will ensure that there is less confusion and more of a sense of control for the customer. A progress indicator bar can be designed in various ways but should clearly show where the customer is and where they have to go.
  • Provide a Link Back to Continue Shopping: A customer may check their total purchase amount or review their items and decide to add more to the cart. For such cases, it is a good idea to provide a clear link to get back to the main website to continue shipping.
  • Ensure That the Checkout Interface is Simple: Though the entire online store should be clean and simple in its appearance with no clutter anywhere, the checkout process needs to achieve this more than anywhere else. The checkout pages should not be cluttered with extra information such as product categories, special offers, related items, etc. these may just distract the customer from completing the process.
  • Keep Customer on the Checkout Page: If the customer needs any additional information such as a shipping process and expected delivery date, it is a good idea to work this into the checkout page. If the customer is redirected, there is a chance of distraction or confusion. Other options for providing this information can be a pop-up window or a new tab.
  • Show Shopping Cart At All Times: Many websites show the shopping cart on the side as the customer continues to shop. This eliminates the need to keep moving to a separate page to keep track of purchases in a cart. Technically, it may be easier to avoid this step, but it makes a lot of difference in improving user experience.
  • Be Clear About Errors: While filling out shipping or billing information, any errors should be highlighted clearly so that the customer does not have to go looking for the error. In addition, there should be concise explanations on how to fix the error to avoid frustration.
  • Offer Gift Wrapping or Add Message Options: Most good websites offer the customer the option for sending a gift wrapped item to someone. This is a particularly good idea close to major holidays but should not be limited to such events only
  • Provide Clear Instructions on Entering Coupon or Special Offer Codes: Before final review, there should be a place to enter coupon or offer codes and the resulting page should reflect changes to the final bill for the customer.
  • Be Clear About Shipping Costs and Delivery Times: Customers have to wait to receive their products during the online shopping experience as it is. To make sure this wait remains painless it is necessary to clearly inform the customer when they should expect their purchase to arrive. In addition, there should be no confusion in shipping costs and all information should be provided clearly.
  • Communicate Next Steps: A good checkout experience will leave the customer with a clear understanding of what is to happen next. This could mean a thank you and a note to tell them that an email with all the details is being sent to them. Additionally, if the customer can cancel or modify an order before the items are shipped, this information should be communicated at this point.
  • Send Confirmation Email: It is a good idea to send a confirmation email with all the order information as well as the delivery time estimate. Other crucial information is the order reference number to track the package or in case of a problem with items.
  • Optimize Checkout for Mobile Devices: Increasingly, it is becoming imperative to ensure that an online store and the checkout process are both optimized for not only a computer but also a variety of mobile devices. There are statistics to show that as many as 88% of customers trying to shop via smartphone have a negative user experience. This is a troubling statistic because more people are turning to browsing and consequently making purchases directly from their mobile devices such as smartphones or pads. These people most often have trouble with navigation, product images that are too small and an inconvenient process for checkout.
  • Provide Multiple Payment Options: The more options users have for payment, the higher the likelihood of them completing their purchase on an online store. It should be easy for customers to pay using common payment solutions and methods. PayPal is a necessity because people tend to view it as secure and convenient. In addition, there should be security assurances for different kinds of credit and debit cards.

EXAMPLES OF SUCCESSFUL CHECKOUT PROCESSES

Armando Roggio, a contributing editor for the website Practical E-commerce and the director for marketing and e-commerce for a multi-channel retail chain, took a look at some of the main checkout features of several leading e-commerce websites. His aim was to use these brands to highlight the right way of to finish an e-commerce transaction.

Through his evaluation, he realized that not all of them used accepted best practices in their processes but manage to provide a good checkout process despite this. So in some cases, companies and experts may differ in the right way of doing things.

The Case Studies

Roggio considered some of the major online stores for his evaluation. These include Amazon, Best Buy, Apple, Dell, Walmart, Macy’s, Office Depot, Office Max, Sears, and Staples. He went to each site on the same day with the intention of assessing how fast he could go from picking a product to completing the purchase.

As expected, most of the e-commerce retailers used the same process flow for their checkout. This process is somewhat standard across all e-commerce websites. After picking a product (including size, color, design or other relevant criteria), the item is added to the shopping cart, billing & shipping information provided along with contact and payment information and finally order confirmation is received.

The two areas where the chosen websites stood out were the ability to continue shopping and the registration process.

  • Continue Shopping: All of these retailers specifically emphasized the option to continue shopping. Previously, the trend had been to offer a link to continue shopping on the checkout page but keep this small and text only. The intention was to allow users the option of easily switching back to the website, but not distract them and risk leading to shopping cart abandonment. In the case of the websites under review, the common factor in most cases was a pop-up style window that allows customers to either continue to checkout or keep shopping with both buttons clearly visible. Other related information is also made available such as on the Sears and Walmart websites, the pop-up window also informs customers of how close they are to reaching the free shipping amount with their purchase. Walmart also provides links to related or complementary items.
  • Meaningful Registration: Amazon was the only one of the reviewed websites that required registration to complete the purchase. Though this is often discouraged in best practices for successful checkout processes, Amazon manages to succeed despite this because the website makes the registration worthwhile. An Amazon Prime user can make purchases with just a single click which is extremely fast, simple and convenient. Conversely, navigation without logging in takes as many as five clicks without considering the clicks between form fields.

The websites that did not require registration required as many as five to eight clicks apart from those between form fields. When registered and logged in, these steps were reduced in every case. So though registration is not mandatory, it does provide a better user experience for the customer. These websites took the time to explain benefits for registration such as Sears, which gives four clear benefits of registering.

  • Faster Checkout
  • Easy Access to order history and checklists
  • Option to manage multiple accounts with one login such as Sears, Kmart, etc.
  • Personalized shopping with a chance to save on items of interest.

These benefits are clearly mentioned on the same page as the log in option. Macy’s also offers customers the option to checkout using the express option or the guest checkout. By using the express checkout, the customer can bypass several steps and move to the final transaction faster.

These leading e-commerce giants had the same checkout flow as most other online stores. They however emphasize more on adding further items to the basket and most likely encourage registration more than other websites.

A good checkout experience is about ensuring that there are fewer distractions for the customer and that there is ample information available in a concise way to help the customer smooth transition through the checkout stages. The easier and quicker the checkout process is, the quicker a sale will be closed and finalized. This in turn will mean a satisfied customer who is more likely to return. 

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Thanks for this insight, very much appreciated for my purposes! That's indeed how an online-shop should work.