Free shipping, sales and product suggestions – these Web site details encourage spending


CORVALLIS, Ore. – Online merchants who offer free shipping, special sales and product suggestions are finding these things can make the difference between a consumer purchasing on a Web site, or taking their business elsewhere.

In a tough economic climate, it is more important than ever for Web retailers to remain competitive. A new study by Oregon State University researchers suggests that that there are several key items, or “cues,” that make the difference between a consumer adding those extra “impulse” purchases or simply leaving a business’s Web site.

In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, OSU researchers Minjeong Kim and Sandy Dawson looked at what cues on apparel Web sites encouraged impulse purchases. Kim said a wealth of research has been done in this area with in-store purchases (store design, customer service), but the research is sparse in the area of “e-tailing.”

Kim and Dawson put together focus groups of college students who often shop online. Their median age was 21 and 60 percent of the participants said they had made an apparel purchase in the last six months.

By far, the item that enticed the shoppers to buy was an offer of free shipping or a shipping discount.

“This item made up about 20 percent of all the focus group mentions,” Kim said. “This is useful for a business to know, because discounted or free shipping could mean the difference between someone choosing your Web site, or a competitor’s site.”

In a store, a salesperson often tries to get the shopper to buy more items or to “up sell.” On a Web site, Kim said the role of the salesperson needs to be replaced in the form of visual product recommendations. Apparel sites that offered suggestions – such as belts, a shirt or shoes that might go with those jeans you just clicked on – were also found to entice people to impulsively buy.  Compared to all the other cues, such as bold sales, new styles, gift ideas, the winning combination appeared to be free shipping and product suggestions.

Kim, an assistant professor in the Department of Design and Human Environment at OSU, said this adds to the growing body of research about online shopping. Kim’s past research has shown the importance of a well-designed Web site on sales figures. Annoying banner ads, flashy pop-ups, badly placed merchandise can all make the difference between a person who becomes a loyal customer, or someone who clicks away and never comes back.

“Convenience, the way information is conveyed and appearance are just as important in a Web site as they are in a store,” Kim said.

Interestingly, Kim’s next research project involves over-consumption and impulse purchases, but this time from the consumer side in an effort to prevent over-spending.