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Shoppers share top 5 "must-haves" for buying online this holiday season

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Some of the most insightful data we gather from the annual eHoliday Study centers simply on what matters most to consumers.

In partnership with BIGinsight, we asked consumers: “When choosing to make holiday purchases from a given online retailer, what is most important to you?" In an industry fueled by constant innovation – whether technical, marketing, merchandising, and beyond – the answers are a reminder that, no matter what those of us in online retail may dream up next, our customers will be looking for a number of key factors.

With a nod to last year’s rankings, here is this year’s fantastic five “what matters most to consumers” list:

1. Seeing the shopping cart total prior to check out: 4.5 of 5. Like last year, this function tops the list for consumers again. As Forrester Research has found, a leading cause of shopping cart abandonment is simply sticker shock when they see the final total including shipping costs. Bottom line: continually update the shopping cart total on relevant pages, thereby getting ahead of this issue even before the customer starts the formal check out process.

2. Product available to ship immediately: 4.5 of 5. Up from number 5 last year, consumers clearly want no surprises on the inventory front, either. Many retailers have bought (very) carefully into inventory in recent years after the 2008 holiday inventory glut – all well and good, but the burden is on the retailer to communicate clearly when inventory levels are minimal (see Boden USA’s effective use of color coding to indicate product availability in terms of in-stock, limited inventory, and out of stock, still one of my favorite examples). Putting a different spin on managing inventory stock issues, ModCloth actually keeps out of stock items on its site, allowing customers to sign up to be notified via email when the item is back in stock – which, in turn, becomes a remarketing tool that the customer is happy to receive.

3. Value for money / good deals: 4.4 of 5. Solidly in third place again this year, consumers continue to look for good value. As many have pointed out, this doesn’t just mean the price itself – it’s about conveying to the customer how the price relates to the qualities of the product such as quality, durability, fashion quotient, uniqueness, and the like.

4. Clear product descriptions: 4.4 of 5. A merchandising basic that always needs updating and fine tuning, this merchandising area now also benefits from the explosion of product video available to consumers. Executed well, product video can significantly enhance the clarity and depth of the product description – a fact not lost on close to half of retailers surveyed who invested significantly this year in product videos. Indeed, Golfsmith’s commitment to using video to explain technical details and ease of use features for products has resulted in increases for both conversion and SEO rankings.

5. Guaranteed on time delivery: 4.4 of 5. Again, imperative for holiday purchases in particular. Those coordination meetings you held last month with your operations staff and shipping vendors will go a long way towards ensuring a minimum of delivery snafus – and for those rare instances, you’ve got a flawless plan to make things right for the customer. Of course, customers can help themselves on this front via clear, visible shipping deadlines calendars (number 10 on their list of customer priorities, by the way). Another perennial favorite of mine, Nordstrom’s holiday shipping calendar, lays out shipping deadlines by each of the three most popular winter holidays (Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa) – I just wish it were already accessible from the home page even now.

What else are consumers looking for when choosing to do business with one merchant versus another? Broad product selection (4.3); merchant reputation (4.2); free return shipping offer  or policy (4.2); the ability to see product reviews from other customers (4.1); and - in tenth place, mind you - promotions (4.1). Clearly consumers don’t simply buy based on free shipping – yes, it’s important, but their decision to buy from you – or your competitor – is often likely much more multi-faceted.

For the full data for this and numerous other eHoliday survey questions, please visit Holiday Central on the Web site.