How trust is still evolving in e-commerce

Isometric illustration poster with shopping e-commerce concept. There is n illustration of a shopping cart coming out from a monitor. Surrounding the monitor illustration, there are items related online shopping, including various products, 24/7 support team avatar, a credit card, a clock with 24h sign, and hands tabbing “order” button on the phone.
mage by macrovector on Freepik

In 1994, a college student named Dan Kohn had a wild thought. What if he set up a website where people could buy stuff? He created NetMarket and sold a Sting album CD to his friend. It was the first-ever secure online transaction. Now nearly thirty years later, CDs aren’t what they were, and the internet has completely revolutionized commerce.

Even with all this transformation for businesses, one thing hasn’t changed: Trust is paramount. It’s the glue that keeps customers and businesses working together all the way from choosing a brand, examining products and services, making a purchase, and re-engaging. On the flip side, a lack of trust can stunt growth and crush customer retention. Especially in the online environment where customers face many uncertainties and risks that they would not experience in-store. Let’s look at three major challenges that companies face when it comes to providing trustworthy online shopping experiences.

When the e-commerce market was in its infancy, customers were suspicious. They couldn’t be certain that the personal information they shared online would be kept private or that they were using reliable platforms. These anxieties stemmed from a lack of trust in new informational technologies. Consumer fears were connected to the fact that there would be no immediate evidence of a data leak and no indication of who had stolen their data or how it was being used and monetized.

As consumers have become more familiar with online security, the need for strong regulations has become critical. One of the major regulations is the PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard). It was created in 2006 by five major card brands to better control cardholder data and reduce credit card fraud. Today, in compliance with PCI DSS, merchants ensure that cardholder information and sensitive authentication data will be encrypted and won’t be stored after a transaction. Aside from online security regulations like PCI DSS, e-commerce sites have also had to improve their own security systems in order to maintain consumer trust. One example is a secure checkout process using a third-party payment vendor like Paypal and/or displaying SSL certificates that ensure data encryption.

Despite evolving security regulations and technologies, there is still a long way to go to address online shopping security concerns completely, especially given the introduction of smart home and mobile technologies. Despite consumers’ increasing awareness of the risks associated with online shopping, a recent study shows that consumer trust remains high. In fact, it could be said that meaningful progress has been made because many consumers are now knowledgeable enough about cybersecurity risks to take precautions themselves, such as using two-factor authentication or checking whether e-commerce sites have secure HTTPS connections.

A person typing out a verification code in order to access something using two-factor authentication
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

As consumers build trust in online transactions, they shift their focus to the quality of products and services. Since customers cannot see the products in real life, they depend on the images and information shared by the vendors. Brands with good UX sites provide photos taken from many angles that capture all of the details of their products. Some apparel brands even share videos of models wearing their clothes. These features convey a brand’s confidence in their products and allow potential customers to inspect their wares meticulously.

A screen recording of Canada Goose website, the product detail page for Lorita Reversible Puffer for Reformation. The page is split into 3 sections: the picture of a model wearing the Canada Goose red puffer jacket, the video that the model turns the jacket inside out to show that it’s reversible product, and a product option panel where users can choose customized options and order it.
Source: Canada Goose

A flexible return policy, customer reviews, and easy tracking systems for deliveries are another smart ways to reassure users. Free returns and other customer-friendly policies may not seem beneficial from a short-term financial perspective. However, many studies have shown that in the long term, these policies build customer loyalty and improve customer retention. According to a study by TrueShip, over 60% of customers will review a Return Policy before making a purchasing decision. Given that customers can only handle or try on products after their online purchase, it’s understandable that they would want to be able to return those that don’t satisfy them. Well-thought-out return policies can act as guarantees of product quality and authenticity.

Nowadays, technology is so integral to our daily lives that more and more people from all walks of life and ages feel good about buying products from the comfort of their own couches. However, the brick-and-mortar store still firmly has its place. Some things people just want to experience and buy in person. For example, purchasing items online, such as shampoo, books, and music, which are relatively inexpensive and easily replaceable, can be effortless and low-risk for people. But when it comes to cars, houses, jewelry, and other complex products, customers often need more reassurance and hand-holding.

These customers perceive the ability to test products in-person and interact directly with business employees as a way to mitigate potential risks. In physical stores, consumers can consult a staff member who has a better understanding of the products than themselves. They believe that by receiving explanations and recommendations about products, asking questions, and handing over their physical credit cards, they are participating in an experience with a staff member who has taken on some responsibility regarding their purchase. By contrast, in online shopping journeys, consumers are in charge of every step of the purchasing process, which can potentially make them more anxious than they would be in-store. Because of this, complex product sales have traditionally flourished offline rather than online.

However, the pandemic has brought about a drastic and unexpected change. When face-to-face interactions became impossible during lockdowns, brands inevitably increased their dependency on online sales. The accelerated digitalization by the pandemic also affected those product sectors that had been slow to move online — the transformation of the automobile industry perfectly exemplifies this change. Because cars usually require multiple in-person examinations, including experiencing the look and feel of the car, inspecting its condition and performance, and test-driving it, automobile sales have remained primarily offline.

A screen shot of Tesla website, the product detail page for Model Y. There is a picture of a blue car that takes more than 2/3 of the page. On the right side, there is a product detail panel where customers can check the details and specification of the product and order a car.
Source: Tesla

One study showed that e-commerce in the US new car market accounted for only 0.5% of sales at the start of 2020. A year later, according to the Cox Automotive report published in 2021, 76% of car buyers are open to buying completely online, and 64% want to handle more of their purchases online compared to the last time they bought a vehicle. By 2025, global auto e-commerce sales are expected to reach 25% of total e-commerce sales. Facing this rapid change, automobile brands will need to reduce the gap between online and offline purchasing experiences and to address customer mistrust of online shopping. The problem is not the quality of products and services, but how well the online purchasing experience mimics the meticulous and personalized experience of in-person shopping.

1. How can online shopping capture the excitement of the multi-sensory offline experience?

Most people believe that they make purchase choices based on rational thinking, but that’s not what studies say. A Harvard Business School professor, Gerald Zaltman, suggests that 95% of our purchase decisions are made on the basis of emotional reactions and gut feelings. It’s essential that brands looking to create profitable online shopping experiences provide a digital environment where UX can trigger the customer’s emotional reactions.

Make it feel real: Good UX will make a customer feel like they are actively engaging with a physical product in a digital space rather than scrolling through a grid of flat images. If a brand’s UX can create a feeling of excitement and exploration and make them feel as though they are interacting with products in real life, then these customers will be more likely to develop trust in a given brand. For example, Polestar’s website, an acquisition of Volvo focusing on performance and electric vehicles, provides a highly immersive and interactive user experience.

A screen recording of Polestar website, the top part of product detail page for Polestar 2. There are a product name, short description, and a car image. And the car image has scroll image animation. When the page is scrolled, the car turns on its backlight and rotate to show the front side of the car.
Source: Polestar

The product page for Polestar 2, an advanced electric car, excites users by beginning with an immersive and interactive 3D modeling image. As the user scrolls, the car turns on its backlight and rotates toward them as if it’s about to start running, mimicking a real-life experience. The way the website transitions from the exterior to the interior of the car is also very engaging. It gives the user the impression that they are smoothly entering the car and communicates a focus on the interior of the vehicle even before the user sees the section title. Additionally, the interior section has a dark background and the exterior section has a light background, which implies a change of mood from the outside to the inside of the car.

A screen recording of Polestar website, the exterior and interior section on the product detail page for Polestar 2. There is an image of a black car that has scroll image animation. When the page is scrolled, a camera showing the product moves above the car and enters into it through the sun roof in order to show the interior of the car.
Source: Polestar

The page is full of interactive elements triggered by scrolling or hovering. The user feels like they are actively engaging with the product. These thoughtful design elements contribute to an offline-like online shopping experience and develop customer trust.

2. How can complicated information be conveyed in an attractive and effective way?

Let’s say you visit an auto dealership. The dealer will try to give you the best possible experience, providing all the information you want to know and even some information you didn’t know, but should. Relying on professional help, you might not worry too much about missing critical information before making a purchase. However, the online shopping experience cannot offer the 1:1 service for every customer provided by the offline experience. How, then, can the online experience assure customers that they can get the same level of understanding and satisfaction through a self-guided shopping experience on the web?

Make complicated information easy to digest: Facing paragraphs of text detailing automobile specifications and information is daunting. UX needs to organize and convey this complicated information in a fun and effective manner. One solution comes from the best practices of good writing: creating a logical sequence and clear hierarchy among contents. For example, a good paragraph might start with a statement of its central idea or a hook that could catch the reader’s eye, and then introduce supporting content, and conclude with a sentence that summarizes the main point and provides a smooth transition to the next paragraph.

UX too can create content hierarchies by making use of different layers of information architecture: a surface layer with core features described with a catchy phrase, and then a deeper layer featuring more complicated information. To use this method, it is essential to decide how much information to display on the default page and how much will be hidden on other pages. Polestar, for example, shows core features on its surface layer, using catchy and concise copy, while waiting to introduce the nitty-gritty in the next layer. This allows users to navigate product pages easily and to learn a product’s core features first, reducing anxiety about missing important information. Deeper layers ensure that customers can always access more detailed specifications when needed.

A screen recording of Polestar website, the technology section on the product detail page for Polestar 2. In the screen record, a mouse clicks one of the product features, Air quality, and it opens up an overlay panel including more details about the feature.
Source: Polestar

Another advantage of surfacing concise ideas in the first layer is that it allows more space for displaying visual information. The importance of visual content for complex products cannot be stressed enough. Because there is no staff to show how the product operates and explain it in detail, the online visual content, especially videos, is key to unlocking a deeper understanding of the product and responding to customer uncertainties. Strong visuals can increase customer trust in content and help them believe that they can make well-informed decisions.

As the e-commerce market grows, brands will continue to address problems of trust and consumers will spend more and more time online. Despite recent advances, the online shopping experience still struggles to flexibly address the unique and personalized experience customers can receive in offline stores. Therefore, the next major hurdle for online shopping is to create a personalized online experience. Many brands have already used advanced AI technology to improve the personal online experience, but consumer trust in AI technology is not strong enough yet. Easy access to human assistance will be essential until consumer trust in AI grows.

Another avenue of exploration for e-commerce brands is the mobile experience. Millennials, Gen Z, and the school-aged Generation Alpha, who have grown up with access to high-speed internet, are easily frustrated by slow loading times and unintuitive mobile experiences. Brands will have to address the perception that mobile webpages are slow to load and offer bad user experiences. Gen Z specifically has a spending power of upward of $143 billion and accounted for an estimated 40% of global customers in 2020. Considering this, it will be crucial for e-commerce brands, especially for complex products, to find solutions to address mistrust in the often awkward mobile shopping experience in the coming years.

Categorized as UX

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