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Caroline's Corner: Four Ways to Lose an Order (and One Way to get One)

Source: UN, 2 January 2004

Caroline Jarrett's column for the end of the year looks at retailing online and toasts the team that manages to meet her requirements as a customer.

A week before Christmas I was shopping online, as usual, but this time with some relatively clear requirements rather than purely as a displacement activity from the important business of writing a report.

These were the requirements:

  • delivery before Christmas (this was Tuesday 16th, so I thought that was reasonable)
  • a decent bottle of red wine from anywhere other than Australia
  • overall price to be under £25

(Note for Australian readers: I love Australian wines but had reasons why I didn’t want this one to be from Oz).

So now for the naming and shaming.

Failure no 1: Waitrose.com

Way that they lost the order: Delivery had already closed

Usability lesson learned: No matter how good the front-end, you have to have the back-end systems to support it.

Failure no 2: Tesco.com

Way that they lost the order: The website continually crashed with an obscure programming error message

Usability lesson learned: No matter how easy it is to use, it has to work.

Failure no 3: Sainsburys.co.uk

Way that they lost the order: Inadequate product offerings.

This one didn’t crash or anything, but after a few clicks around and viewing 5 or so pages of products I hadn’t found anything that looked like it fulfilled my criteria. More important, I hadn’t built up any confidence that persistence would reveal something. My impression was that the site was easy to navigate but the navigation didn’t deliver me to what I wanted.

Usability lesson learned: Quick navigation to your standard offering is great, but don’t forget some routes for the customer who wants something fancier.

Failure no 4: www.vintagewinegifts.co.uk (or was it a success?)

Way that they lost the order: Over my budget.

As I wandered about this site, it dawned on me that they really didn’t want my business at a paltry £25. I clicked away happily and gradually noticed the ‘go away’ messages: “Free delivery over £39”, “Price range: Under £40, £40 - £70, Over £40”, the only red wine under £25 being out of stock.  So in one sense this was a success - they turned me away without insulting me. But in another sense it was a failure: it didn’t persuade me to extend my budget to take advantage of their wonderful service, because I never really saw anything to justify the extra expense.

Usability lesson learned: You need to cater as politely for the people that you’re not doing business with as for those you want. Maybe you can persuade them to change their criteria or come back another day.

Success: www.laywheeler.com

Ways that they gained the order: Good selection, easy to find, within my budget, met my requirements.

The reassuring thing about the Lay and Wheeler site was that the top price in the range was £30, with the range going down to £7.50. Ordinarily £7.50 is the maximum that we’d spend on a bottle of wine in the Jarrett household (and what’s wrong with the £2.99 Cotes du Plonk anyway?) but this was a special occasion.

A few fairly easy clicks, a registration process that wasn’t too onerous, easy to specify a delivery address different to mine and a couple of nice details: the option to specify delivery instructions, and the option to be informed of the actual delivery date. Well done Lay and Wheeler. Even the £7.95 delivery charge (ouch) didn’t put me off. If the bottle arrives as anticipated, I may even get another one to toast the New Year.

Usability lesson learned: If the overall site experience is good enough, users will forgive a minor problem. 

Best wishes to all for 2004, and I hope to continue to see you here around the end of each month.

If you have any comments or suggestions about this article then please contact Caroline at:


Caroline Jarrett
Independent usability consultant specialising in forms, questionnaires and data capture.

Effortmark Ltd
w. www.effortmark.co.uk
e. caroline.jarrett@effortmark.co.uk
p. +44 (0)1525 370379