How Firms Can Shape the Customer Experience for Greater Success in Online Retailing

Alexander Bleier, Colleen M. Harmeling, and Robert W. Palmatier, 2017, 17-119-08

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Online retail is an increasingly important and competitive sales channel, in which creating an effective customer experience is a crucial success factor. Yet, the amount and diversity of products offered on a single online retail platform make it challenging to create meaningful, product-specific, online experiences. Retailers therefore typically provide sellers with approximately 20 adjustable storefront design elements (e.g., photos, text descriptions, bullet points) which they can use to assemble their own product listings and create unique online customer experiences for each of their products. However, so far it is still largely unclear how to build effective experiences with these design elements.

Previous research has focused on a limited number of design elements, without accounting for the potential need to adjust experiences across brands and products. The objective of this research is therefore to understand how online “storefront” design elements affect the online customer experience and subsequent purchases, as well as how to adapt the experience to different brand and product factors.

The authors collaborate with four Fortune 1000 firms as well as a specialized online content agency to conduct a set of 16 online experiments spanning 16 different products (from 11 different brands), for which the online content agency created 256 unique “Amazon look-alike” product webpages. On these webpages, they manipulated 13 design elements according to an orthogonal array design, then tested the pages among 10,470 participants. A series of meta-analyses of the results of these 16 experiments yielded the unique effects of each design element, while accounting for the simultaneous influences of all other elements. Next, they collected measures of 8 brand and product factors for each of the 16 products in their sample and conducted a series of moderation analyses that provide insight into which type of online experience is best suited to a specific branded product.

Their study makes four main contributions to theory and practice.

First, the authors identify how 13 distinct online design elements shape four key aspects of the online customer experience (enjoyment, informativeness, social presence, and vividness), which then influences purchases. They find that picture size and customer reviews exert strong, significant effects across all four aspects of the experience while most other design elements instead affect a single aspect more than others.

Second, they evaluate the importance of the four aspects of the online experience for linking design elements to customer purchases, expanding understanding of the role of experience in online retail. The results show that all four experience aspects exert significant impacts on purchases, with enjoyment being the primary driver, followed in order by social presence, informativeness, and then vividness.

Third, they evaluate how brand and product factors influence the effects of different types of experiences on purchases. They find, for example, that the impact of informativeness on purchases is 27% greater for brands about which consumers hold more than average positive attitudes.

Fourth, they offer an online retailing “design guide” to provide managers with actionable insights into how to design effective online customer experiences, catered to specific product and brand factors.

Alexander Bleier is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Carroll School of Management, Boston College. Colleen M. Harmeling is Assistant Professor of Marketing, College of Business, Florida State University. Robert W. Palmatier is Professor of Marketing and John C. Narver Chair in Business Administration, University of Washington.

This research was supported by the Marketing Science Institute (Research Grant 4-1963).



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