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On-site search as a central element of the customer experience

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What e-commerce can learn about customer experience from bricks-and-mortar retail

Even if e-commerce takes place online, it pays to look beyond the end of one’s own nose. There are various concepts, behaviors, and simple experiences from everyday life from which you can learn in e-commerce. These include, for example, why the search in your own shop is such a central element of the customer experience. 

1. A visit to the home improvement store pays off

In contrast to online shopping, a visit to the home improvement store starts long before you actually reach the store: How will I get there? What do I want to buy? Do I have enough space in my car? Have I written down all the information about measurements, for example? This preparation and the drive to the store require energy, for which you would like to be rewarded. When entering the store, if your list is long, it soon becomes clear: So many items, so much selection, so many aisles – how can I find my way around? Where’s the silicone? Where are the brushes? Where are nails, bathroom accessories, and glue? Shoppers have to learn to interpret categories they did not create. Here, only the analog search can help: Ask an employee. Sometimes this takes a while; frequently you have to wait in line. But you wait, you look beyond the situation, and in the end, purchase products even though the shopping experience was not perfect, for the visit itself was difficult enough.  

That’s not the case online: In e-commerce, none of these environmental factors exist. For customers, finding products should be easy, quick, and self-explanatory. If this isn’t the case, customers can be “heartless” and jump from one online shop to another with just a click. The anonymity and lacking personal contact ensure that there is no way to compensate for weaknesses in the user experience. 

The analogy between bricks-and-mortar retail and e-commerce shows that it is necessary to rethink many central aspects of the experience. It’s more important than ever to see things from the customer’s perspective and truly think and design the user experience from the user’s point of view. The experience in the home improvement store shows how much on-site shopping differs from online shopping and why the optimization of central components such as the search function on the website do not allow any deferment of the user experience. 

2. Customers are the key

“Customers can only buy what they can actually find.” This wisdom indicates how important it is to examine customers and their needs. Using the knowledge about what customers are looking for and what they can find or not find is essential for optimizing the search function. In addition, non-functional factors also play a role, such as the speed with which customers can reach their goal. If customers are using a precise term to search for a product, they expect to see it right at the top of the hit list. If they are forced to use many different filters in order to find product they’re looking for, they lose a lot of time and they won’t keep using the online shop. 

Optimizing the search function is equivalent to improving access to your product line. If customers cannot find what they are looking for, then even the best product line cannot fulfill its potential. Combined with the challenges of e-commerce, a poor search quickly becomes a risk for the success of a website. The understanding that you have to put customers at the center of your consideration is the decisive pillar and most important prerequisite for optimizations and new developments. 

3. Learning from customer behavior

The first step for learning from customer behavior can be to analyze zero-result searches. Search queries without hits offer various starting points for challenges and possible solution approaches. Here it is important to illuminate not just the technical, but also the professional aspects. There is optimization potential that requires no technical changes but has a great influence on the user experience. Gaps in the product line can cause disappointments when searching since customers cannot find what they need. This has a direct impact on the assessment of the search even though the problem cannot be solved with clever algorithms. This is just one example of how a professional question influences the quality of the search. 

Another possibility for incorporating customers into the optimization is asking them for feedback. This form of data collection is frequently tricky and the feedback rate is usually very low. One possibility for getting relevant feedback is incorporating feedback possibilities into particular pages. The zero-result page, if a search query delivers no results, is a very good starting point here. This has two positive effects: On the one hand, users have the opportunity to voice their concern, but they don’t have the feeling that they have been abandoned. On the other hand, qualitative insights can be collected, which provide information about challenges that can only be derived from the numbers with difficulty. 

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