Practical Ecommerce

Reviewing the Checkout Process of 10 Leading Online Retailers

The checkout process is the last step in completing an online transaction and making a sale. A well-planned checkout experience can significantly boost conversions. Leading online retailers have made their checkouts more adaptive, rewarding registered users, and giving site visitors plenty of opportunity to purchase more.

I looked at how 10 leading online retailers managed the checkout experience. The hope is that these 10 big brands can demonstrate the proper way to close an ecommerce sale. Interestingly, however, some of these brands don’t use what experts believe are the best practices for providing a good checkout experience. Do these companies know something the experts don’t or are they successful in spite of their idiosyncrasies?

10 Leading Online Retailers

To look at the checkout process, I stepped through making a purchase on Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, Dell, Macy’s, Office Depot, Office Max, Sears, Staples, and Walmart. I visited each of the sites on June 17, 2013.

For each site, I wanted to learn how quickly I could go from selecting a product to purchasing it. I was also interested in what barriers, if you will, lie between product selection and buying the product.

Each of the sites generally followed the same checkout flow — which is common to virtually every ecommerce business. Shoppers select a product specifying its options; add that item to a shopping cart; provide both billing and shipping addresses and contact information; provide payment information like a payment card number; and receive some form of order confirmation. But there were two areas that stood out for these 10 retailers: (a) giving shoppers the opportunity to make additional buys, and (b) the registration process.

Would You Like to Continue Shopping?

Giving a shopper ample opportunity to keep shopping was certainly a trend with the ten retailers.

For some time, it has been a best practice to offer shoppers the option to continue shopping from the first page of the checkout process. Often the “continue shopping” link was text only and relatively small. The idea was to give interested shoppers the ability to add more to their market basket, but not to distract them from making a purchase.

Typically "continue shopping" links are small and in text only.

Typically "continue shopping" links are small and in text only.

But for the retail sites I reviewed, the clear trend was to offer a pop-up or modal window that gave shoppers the opportunity to complete the purchase or keep shopping. In some cases, retailers even emphasized the ability to keep shopping over going directly to checkout.

For example, when a shopper adds an item to the shopping bag on Macy’s site, a modal appears summarizing what’s in the cart and giving shoppers a clear link to continue shopping.

Macy's offers a continue shopping link on a modal interface.

Macy’s offers a continue shopping link on a modal interface.

On the Sears site, shoppers are not only given the opportunity to continue shopping, but also told how many dollars they are away from earning free shipping on the order. This data again appears in a modal interface before the shopper is taken to the cart.

Sears lets shoppers know how much more they need to purchase to get free shipping.

Sears lets shoppers know how much more they need to purchase to get free shipping.

Similarly, Walmart also shows shoppers how much more they need to purchase to get free shipping and offers a link to recommend complementary products.

Walmart encourages additional sales too.

Walmart encourages additional sales too.

Make Registration Mean Something

Of the sites reviewed, only Amazon required site registration to make a purchase. But Amazon, which is, perhaps, the most recognized and successful online retailer in the United States, makes registration worthwhile.

As a logged in Amazon Prime user, I was able to purchase items with a single click — making the purchase simple and fast.

Amazon offers one-click checkout to logged-in Prime members.

Amazon offers one-click checkout to logged-in Prime members.

When not logged in, the Amazon checkout flow took five clicks, not counting clicks between form fields.

For most of the sites, traversing the checkout flow took about five to eight clicks, again not counting any clicks to move between form fields. In every case, checking out as a registered user significantly reduced the number of steps needed to complete the transaction. In this sense, the retailers reviewed were providing a tangible benefit to being a registered user. This is actually not unusual though since many ecommerce platforms offer similar advantages.

These retailers generally did a good job of describing the benefit to registering. Sears was straightforward, offering four reasons to register.

The Sears site explains the benefits of registering.

The Sears site explains the benefits of registering.

Macy’s, as another example, offered an express checkout link, indicating that if users where registered they could skip a significant portion of the checkout process. In this way new customers are encouraged to register to have the express checkout option next time.

Macy's express checkout link shows new customers one of the benefits of registering.

Macy’s express checkout link shows new customers one of the benefits of registering.

Summing Up

The ten leading online retailers reviewed generally emphasized adding more items to the market basket and did, perhaps, a better-than-standard job of encouraging site registration. In the latter area, Amazon, which required registration, was the most exceptional.

In the checkout flow these retailers were very similar to what one might find on any good ecommerce platform.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. Elizabeth Ball June 20, 2013 Reply

    Interesting article, Armando. I can see the value of registering to speed up the checkout process on websites with thousands and thousands of products which encourage repeat visits. As a small retailer with about 50 products, I don’t require registration which I believe helps to lessen cart abandonment. Personally, I don’t like having to register at a website that I know I’ll be buying (a gift for another) from, once.

  2. PickMyGift June 20, 2013 Reply

    I agree. Today we all need too many ‘passwords’ for too many accounts everywhere… I want my customers to make a purchase without feeling like I’m keeping tabs on them or creating a file. I don’t like it when I shop, so why would I want my customers to do differently… 6 steps to checkout is not so bad – put in cart, ship address, confirm, make payment (PayPal has 2 steps).. easy enough

  3. Tricia Chismer Garrett June 20, 2013 Reply

    I would be interested to see the correlation between registered users and measurements such as cart abandonment, average order value, items per order and other metrics. Parker Avery blogged about these measurements last week: I would anticipate that customers who register might be more profitable and loyal to the retailer. However, as stated in the above comment, registration may not make sense for all retailers, and many consumers don’t wish to register for fear of being spammed, privacy concerns or worse. It is indeed a best practice to offer the option, as well as help shoppers understand the benefits of registering. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Monika_1 June 20, 2013 Reply

    Great article and case studies here, Armando. Elizabeth, I agree with your comment that retailers should offer a guest checkout for people buying gifts as a way to reduce shopping cart abandonment. In fact, when buying gifts online, the less information consumers are forced to provide (both their own and the gift recipient’s), the better. For a lot of retailers (like the Macy’s example here), if someone wants to buy clothing as a gift but doesn’t know the recipient’s size or color preference, they either have to ask and ruin the surprise, or move on to another gift idea. On the other hand, if they just guess and get it wrong, the recipient will have to return or exchange it, which costs the retailer time and money. I recently blogged about this and questions retailers should ask–especially as they plan for the upcoming winter holiday season.

  5. HolgerMaassen June 27, 2013 Reply

    Thx for sharing.
    When we talk about selecting a product and purchasing it – there are quite a lot of factors that will influence satisfaction, convenience and the joy of purchasing. And there are so many factors which influence the conversion rate.
    Perhaps these articles might be interesting for one or two:
    The ultimate conversion rate or there is a world behind the buy-button:
    Shopping Carts + Check-out – There is often no big single problem, there are "just" a lot of little problems:

  6. Pamotos Colomb Ia June 30, 2013 Reply

    Great article armando, i ve been readin a lot of articles in these site and they are really helpful for the proyect im currently running in colombia (check it out when you have a chance ). Rules are a bit different here in Colombia. Ecommerce is just starting and i hope to share the good and the bad of my whole process in here. Btw we are now in our second year so most of these info is very valuable

  7. Donna January 31, 2015 Reply

    Great feedback, especially the preregistration and the streamlined checkout process

  8. Mary Johnson March 19, 2015 Reply

    Great research based Article.You are right that checkout process is the last step but important and value based step in completing an online transaction during purchasing,thats why these big brand representing companies have a deep eye on this part, and this is the secret of their success.Apart from that now small and medium size online companies also focus toward that part and using different software for that which ultimalty remove the relaoding or refreshing page on the cart and that will saves their customers time and give them a good feel as well

  9. Krisztina March 28, 2015 Reply

    Hey Armando, cool article! I’m sure it was and is helpful for many people aiming to power up their checkout game. Actually, we’ve just released an article introducing 14 proven tips in order for your website to turn into a real selling machine. Just thought it could be useful for those aiming to bring out the best from their checkout funnels! Cheers

  10. Robin Hill July 12, 2016 Reply

    Interesting article Armando.

    At RapidSpike we measure the speed of online shopping carts and other critical processes. Just wondering if you considered measuring the performance of a given site as part of your analysis?

    The work flow might be great but if the site is slow the experience will be poor regardless.