Understanding e-commerce through the eyes of the corner store
Recently we were asked to design a box for a major robotics company. This box was meant for one of their many pool cleaning robots, and now sits on a shelf beside the competition, waiting to be picked up by their customers. So let’s take a moment to talk about the way box design can give us a glimpse into how the e-commerce customer makes choices. Imagine yourself standing in a store, trying to figure out which pool cleaning robot is best for you. You stare at the shelf and see four competing boxes. Which do you check out first? Assuming you haven’t arrived with a specific brand in mind, two elements will decide how you choose which box to bring down first. At first, your eyes will move to the box that grabs the most attention. This is the box that looks different from the other boxes. Are there three white options and one that’s bright orange? You will look at the orange one first. That gives the orange box an advantage. The first box you look at is more likely to be the one you pick up first. And the box you pick up first is the one you are most likely to buy. There is another element that may change this a little, and that is personal identity. A product with a majority female customer base (at least those who tend to buy it at the store), will likely have a woman on the front of the box. This is to resonate with the customer’s personal identity. In this case, no matter how orange the box is, the customer is likely to prefer the white one with their identity on the front. A website for college applicants would include a large image of student who are happily sitting on the campus grass. Baby products include happy babies or calm babies on happy mothers. These images portray a personal identity and make sure to be aspirational. This is how customers want to imagine their experience will be as they use the product. Let’s stop here for a moment and talk about e-commerce. What is the digital equivalent of the orange box? How do we draw the eye to where we want it to be? When potential customers arrive at your e-commerce website, they likely don’t have other websites open in front of them to choose from. The website should be memorable and eye catching, but it isn’t (at this moment) competing with other websites. In this case, a website is like the shop. You can be in Walmart and Target but not at the same time. Websites are different from a brick and mortar store in that, while Walmart cares if people buy a pool robot in their store, they are agnostic as to which one the customer chooses. The battle of the boxes is the problem of the brand, not the store. Your e-commerce website likely has quite a few products on its digital shelf. You likely prefer visitors choose one product over another. Even if you don’t, you should likely act as though you do. E-commerce websites are plagued with what I like to call: ‘Image in a box fatigue’. Too many beautiful product images on too many white backgrounds, framed by too many boxes and sitting one next to the other. The human brain likes choice, but doesn’t respond well to it without proper context. When customers look at eight or twelve product boxes next to each other, their brain is lost. They need guidance. Which one is better than the other? Which do other customers prefer? Which is most expensive? In wine, the biggest predictors of our favorite wines are not the vintage or the vineyard, but the price and the label. Highlighting one product over another will pull your visitor’s focus and let them know there is a hierarchy. This is the expensive one. This is the base options. Here’s the value. So try not to have images in identical boxes. Add some asymmetry to your design and you might just sell more. Wait, we’re not done yet. The shiny front face of the box in the store will decide which box customers pull down first, but that is not necessarily the product they will end up buying. Once customers bring down a box, they tend to flip it over to look at the specs. This is the side that will determine if customers buy it or move to the next product. Two things will make a customer put the box down at this stage. It might not fit his or her needs (around 30 percent of the time), and it might be so complicated that the customer prefers to put the box down rather that start reading. It might trigger the ‘I’ll do it later’ reflex. How often did you put off a task just because you knew it would be complicated. Long text posts on Facebook tend to be skipped over, while image posts tend to be clicked on. We once designed a political campaign, and decided to limit posts to 27 words and two paragraphs. As potential customers flip over the box, they might see a visual mess of lines, graphics, tables and text. The more difficult the decision becomes, the more likely a customer is to put the box down and check out the next one. Hopefully, in the other box, things are a little simpler. A box that was put down very rarely gets picked up again. So your e-commerce customer has clicked on an image in a box. You bring them to the products page and what do they see? Is it a complex mess of text, sizes, prices, and added options? Can they immediately see what they need to know? Online, we have even less patience than at the store. This is where it is often best to skip the long text descriptions and vision. Size instructions are important, but best hide them under a clear label. A clear button for sizes will put customers at ease in the knowledge that they have it when they need it, without putting to much on the screen at one time. E-commerce is new to our old human brain. It may be more efficient and more simple, but for our brain it is just another store. So remember basics of how people make a their decisions, so you can thrive with any platform.