How to Structure Your Online Store to Help First-time Shoppers

There are more first-time shoppers online now, than ever before. Here’s how to make it as easy as possible for them to use your site.

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Your store is probably receiving more visitors who are new to online shopping than ever before. According to a March 2020 survey by Statista, 9% of U.S. consumers bought a product online for the first time due to social distancing measures. 

That purchase experience was probably far from straightforward, however. Online shopping isn’t an intuitive exercise. There are no shelves, shopping assistants or changing rooms. Even those with experience browsing the web may not find online shopping a seamless experience.

If your company’s not taking steps to make it as easy as possible for first-time shoppers to buy online, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. 

Here’s how to structure your eCommerce store to deliver the best user experience possible and help first-time shoppers find everything they need. 

Make Your Site Easy to Navigate

Your navigation has one job, says Marry Ann, a Branding Consultant at PushMaze: to help consumers find products quickly. That’s why, if you design it well, you’ll both improve the user experience and increase sales. 

A well-designed navigation bar is especially important when your site has dozens of categories and hundreds or thousands of products, says eCommerceCEO Co-Founder Darren DeMatas. He recommends several best practices, which include:

  • Limit the top menu to seven categories.
  • HidE non-product pages in secondary navigation.
  • Use contrasting colors to make your navigation even more obvious.

Whatever you do, don’t have a single dropdown menu with a long list or display category pages without any products in the main navigation.

Most web designers aren’t fond of hover-based and dropdown navigation, says retail marketing consultant Armando Roggio, but they still have their place on eCommerce sites. One thing you must do if you create huge menus is to make sure the top-level navigation is clickable, however. Research has shown that consumers expect to be able to click on the main category. 

The navigation menu isn’t the only way to make your site easy to navigate. You should add breadcrumbs throughout your site, says Bill Widmer at Sumo. In doing so, you help consumers see precisely where they are on your website and head back to a previous category easily. 

“Not only is this great for users, it’s also great for Google and SEO,” he says. “While Google will sometimes create their own breadcrumbs, creating actual markup with breadcrumbs increases your chances of getting them.”

a magnifying glass on a blue background; first-time shoppers search concept

Ensure Your Site Search Is As Good As an Assistant

Consumers will ask sales clerks to help them when they can’t find a particular product in a store. Online, they’ll turn to your store’s search bar to help them find what they need.

That means your site’s search functionality needs to be as good as an in-store salesperson, says David Hoos, Marketing Director at Conversmart. It needs to offer product suggestions, answer their questions and help consumers to convert. Configuring your eCommerce site this way will make consumers less likely to become frustrated and leave or have to call your customer service helpline.

Most importantly, your site search needs to be obvious. Don’t tuck it away in a corner, writes AcquireConvert Founder Giles Thomas. Visitors need to see it as soon as they land on the page. 

“Standard eCommerce site design metrics say that users expect to find the site search box in the top right or top middle of their screen,” he says. “This should be in the header section of your store and visible on every page.”

Don’t try to be too cute with icons, either. Some first-time shoppers may not understand that a picture of a magnifying glass means it’s the search box. Instead, show the entire bar and include a written CTA like “Search” to avoid any confusion.

Autocomplete functionality can also make it easier for visitors to find what they are looking for, says Laura Dolan at Keap. With autocomplete, you ensure the search results return accurate recommendations and avoid problems with misspellings. It will improve the user experience and boost conversion rates, too.

While your search results’ first job is to help customers find what they are looking for, the second job should be to help them find products they may not know they need or want. This is called “searchandizing,” explains WalkerBots Content Studios Founder Tommy Walker, and is used to upsell and cross-sell other, often more profitable products. 

By including more expensive items in the search results, you can encourage consumers to consider upgrading their purchase. You can also push clearance items, he adds, which helps to get rid of old stock while making newer products look more enticing. 

Use Product Filters to Make Browsing Effortless

Not every shopper knows exactly what they want. That’s why, along with great site search capability, you’ll need to make sure your category and product pages are easily digestible with the use of filters.

Effective product filters can put your store head and shoulders above the competition as very few sites have them, says freelance writer Brenda Barron. More importantly for new online shoppers, filters allow consumers to browse products much faster. 

It’s important to tailor product filters to your consumers and product categories, says Greg Randall, Managing Director at Comma Consulting. When shopping for moisturizer on Sephora, for instance, consumers can filter the category by age, brand, skin concerns and ingredients. These categories will obviously change from those used for other products, but they help create an online experience that surpasses that of the in-store.

You don’t have to rely on consumers to do the filtering, either. Leading eCommerce stores use pre-set product filters to give consumers a jumping-off point, says software developer Catalin Zorzini. For instance, they may group together the most popular products in a given category or recommend a selection of products based on the consumer’s previous browsing history. 

woman using a tablet to navigate a site to purchase interior design wares; first-time shoppers concept

Optimize the Experience For Mobile and Tablet Users

So far, we’ve only discussed how to structure your site for desktop and laptop users; but there’s no guarantee that first-time shoppers will be using these devices. It’s just as important to optimize your site’s structure for mobile and tablet users. Often, that will mean making your mobile site look and act very differently from your desktop site.

Take the navigation menu, for instance. It’s not smart to replicate your desktop menu on your mobile website, says digital marketing consultant Alex Chris. Because you only have so much screen space to work with, you’ll probably need to redesign the menu to include only those pages essential for eCommerce. In other words, secondary pages like your terms and conditions and company information should be grouped together or either hidden from the main menu entirely. 

The same goes for product filters. You want your consumers to have choices, says Joe Pendlebury, UX Engineer healthcare products provider Steris, but too much choice can be overwhelming. The more ways you allow consumers to narrow down their search, the stronger the likelihood they’ll be presented with no products, too. Your filter won’t look pretty on a mobile device, either. 

Finally, there are optimizations you should make for mobile users that you may also want to keep on your desktop site. Benevity Design Manager Jaybe Allanson recommends clearly describing what each button and link will do. So rather than saying “next” or “continue,” you explain consumers will “check out securely.”

Why? Because time is important when browsing on a smartphone. You want to decrease the likelihood shoppers will waste time hitting the back button or, more likely, leave your site entirely. 

If you think optimizing your site in this way sounds like a lot of effort for a small number of visitors, remember you’ll actually be optimizing the user experience for every consumer. The easier it is for first-time shoppers to make purchases from your store, the easier it will be for veteran online shoppers, too. In other words, you can’t lose.

Images by: Sergey Zolkin, Markus Winkler, Brooke Cagle

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