I have just finished a fascinating book called “Why we buy: the science of shopping”, written by Paco Underhill. It describes how the retail shopping experience can be improved (read ‘sell more’) just by monitoring the way in which shoppers interact with the environment in which they shop. Paco’s team have perfected the art of subtly and unobtrusively following shoppers around stores, recording exactly what they do while in the store.

Big retailers call them in to a fix a whole range of problems. Some of the suggestions they come up with are a lot simpler than you would imagine for something as complex as store design. For instance, Paco mentions the story of an Australian store that was having problems selling cut flowers. There was a wide range on offer in the aisle and great foot traffic passed the display but the category was still underperforming compared with other similar-sized supermarkets.

Paco’s team started their monitoring and gradually the issues came to light. Firstly, the flowers were placed in large plastic bins, which made it difficult to see if they were sold individually or as a bunch. The bins also managed to hide the price of each bunch so shoppers had to pull out a bunch from each bin to see what they cost, and by doing so they promptly dripped water all over the aisle.

The highly technical solution was to pull out a few bunches from each bin and place them in an easier-to-reach container and make the price more obvious. Once this was done the flowers started flying out the door and the category performance came up to standard. No extra advertising, no expensive store display, no change of category mix. Probably the simplest of solutions (most in Paco’s book are painfully obvious but frequently missed by retailers) but nevertheless the best solution for the problem.

Unfortunately, when things fail to perform online this type of user analysis is rarely considered an option. (And yes, there are some tools we use so we can see ‘over the shoulder’ of each of your website’s visitors.) But most people think that traffic – or a lack of it – is the reason why a product or service is not selling online. This is the reason why ‘How do I build traffic to my website?’ is one of the top three questions I get asked each week.

However, just like the flower example, finding more traffic is usually not the solution. It wouldn’t have mattered how many people walked past the flower aisle in its original form, those flowers would still have remained stuck in their over-sized buckets.

So how do you know if your low website conversion rate is a problem that has a solution as easy as this one was? Especially when increasing your visitor traffic takes both time and money, while basic web page changes can usually be made in minutes for little investment.

Sometimes it is easy to pick out – here are a few ideas for you to try.

First, it pays to recognise the need for a fresh pair of eyes to help you see problems that have previously remained hidden to you. I am frequently called in to take on this role. All I’m told is that there is a problem (low sales or low conversions) and I’m then left to wander through the person’s website to buy or register for something along the way.

Just like Paco’s team do, it is ideal if you can look over the shoulder of the person using your site. Technology makes this easy. We use Gotomeeting – it allows you to see the reviewer’s computer screen as they click throughyour site. Couple this with a phone call so you can hear them mutter away about what they want to do but are having problems with and you are set. We go one step further and record the process so website owners can refer to the session later on as they work through making any changes identified.

Fresh eyes will pick up ‘instruction text’ that trips up rather than guides visitors through their shopping experience. For an e-commerce site, the main instruction points occur during these stages: adding product to a cart, checking out the purchase, entering personal details, entering billing details, and confirming the purchase. There’s a lot in here to cause problems for a first-time shopper. (Any website analytics tool should confirm how big the problem is by the percentage of people that fall out of the buying process at each stage of the sale.)

Last week I reviewed a website that had some problems in this area. Their instructions were not clear on how the shipping cost was applied and what you needed to do to register your details. I was running a Gotomeeting session, with the website owner seeing what I was doing, while I talked through what content was causing my confusion. I picked up obvious things that they had missed because they had seen their site too often. So when we reached the problem stages they didn’t really need my comments, they were obvious to them too – it was just that they had missed them before. We found problems with four areas and suggested some small changes that should have a dramatic effect on improving their conversion rates.

Finally, once you have all your ‘instructions’ working well, you need to look at the softer side of the sale – the level of assurance your site provides the first-time shopper. When thinking about how much of this is required I always think of my father-in-law as the shopper we are dealing with. How would he feel as he worked through the sales process for the first time? Would the text be big enough? Are the action buttons absolutely clear? Are all his questions answered in such a way as to make him feel comfortable making his first online purchase on the site I am reviewing?

Assumption is the problem here. You know you have a 14-day money-back guarantee with nice customer service staff to help with any returns but unless you make these statements obvious on your order pages nobody else will know. Remember the recent concern over security of the online payment of Auckland toll transactions? How do you tell your shoppers your site is secure?

These three points done properly should pick up the small, obvious changes that can have a big effect on your site’s conversion rate. Don’t underestimate how much these little alterations can do. As I was once told by a successful retail manager “Retail is detail” – well, the same applies online.