Back-to-school (BTS) is one of the most important shopping seasons of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, total spending for both K-12 and college supplies is expected to reach $75.8 billion this year. The weeks before the beginning of the school season are a busy time for shoppers and retailers. While parents prioritize price, quality and convenience when making their purchase decisions, factors like customer experience and navigational ease also affect consumer preferences. Retailers have the ability to improve customer experiences in order to capitalize on their full sales potential.
This new report by user research platform UserTesting identifies which BTS shopping experiences were the best across multiple web devices and physical stores. To compare the BTS shopping experience among five top retailers, UserTesting conducted a study with 270 participants, evaluating the various types of shopping experiences at Target, Wal-Mart, Staples, Office Depot and Amazon.com.
Online Browsing Has a Large Impact on the Buying Process
Before beginning the study, participants were asked about their normal BTS shopping habits. Most shoppers use computers (80.6 percent) or smartphones (72.7 percent) to aid them in BTS shopping endeavors. Additionally, about half of the surveyed consumers had already chosen the stores they would shop at before the study started. Another 41 percent said they would look online before choosing a store. In other words, of those customers still up for grabs, almost all looked online before they decided where to buy.
Mobile Shopping: Death by 1,000 Cuts
It’s common knowledge that many people find mobile websites less satisfying than their desktop counterparts. This study attempted to find out why that's the case. The results revealed the major problem of poor attention to detail within mobile sites. Compared to the desktop, mobile shopping is like death by a thousand cuts. Customers complained about a series of nagging problems with features including filtering, order entry, estimating shipping time and cost, irrelevant search results, and buried return policies. All of these small frustrations create a poor user experience.
All five retailers received lower ease-of-use ratings on their mobile website than their desktop website. However, Target was an outlier, with 92 percent of participants rating its mobile site five or higher (with seven being the highest rating for ease of use).
Target received the highest ratings due to its seamless checkout experience and the ability to easily locate shipping information.
Desktop Shopping: High Ease of Use, but Inaccessible Return Policies
The five retailers earned fairly close scores on ease of use of their desktop websites. The highest-rated retailers were Staples, Office Depot and Target. Some of the positive interactions with these retailers included clear shipping information and smooth checkout processes.
One key similarity among the different retailers was that the return policy for items wasn't accessible in the shopping cart, so participants had no choice but to navigate away from their cart to find this information. With 26 percent of participants stating that they purchase products they think their children will like and then return any unwanted items, implementing an easily accessible return policy is a great way for retailers to improve their virtual ease of use.
Amazon and Wal-Mart had lower-ranking desktop shopping experiences. Although Amazon is a leading force in e-commerce, its website has usability challenges. The Amazon desktop site was the lowest rated of all the sites tested, and its mobile site received a second-to-last rating. Common complaints included trouble finding shipping costs and delivery dates prior to purchase on mobile, trouble locating return policies, and obscure navigation among the many departments on the site.
Brick-and-Mortar Shopping: Confusing Signage, Lack of Organization
For the in-store portion of the study, UserTesting measured the ease of finding the BTS department in-store and finding a supply from the participant’s BTS list.
Overall, confusing or hidden signage pointing to the BTS area, inconsistent BTS department layouts and poor stock organization worsened the shopping experience. However, other factors, such as competitive prices and readily available store associates, made up for the lack of clarity.
While customer experience is certainly not the only factor that consumers take into account to determine where to shop, incremental improvements like fixing usability issues and improving the mobile experience can make a huge impact on retailers’ success.
Janelle Estes is the senior director of enterprise research strategy at UserTesting, a user research platform for retailers and brands.
Related story: Staples Launches New App Feature for Back-to-School Shoppers