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21 Lessons the World’s Largest Online Retailers Spent Millions to Learn [2nd Edition]

Almost four years ago Russ Henneberry published this post, and for content that reported on digital trends and lessons, it’s a little surprising that these lessons still apply today!

However, some needed a few updates, and I wanted to share some other industry lessons that I’ve noticed over the last few years.

I’ll be talking about these lessons (and WAY more) at this year’s Content and Commerce Summit in Los Angeles. Consider this post as the amuse-bouche of ecommerce optimization! "You're about to access millions of dollars of ecommerce website testing at no charge."

Before I dive into this, I want to briefly discuss the efficacy of “Best Practices” because if you don’t think best practices mean a thing for your company then you’re ABSOLUTELY going to hate this post.

In the optimization space, the idea of the “Best Practice” has been attacked time and time again. The thought process behind the anti-best practice folk was that your competitors also don’t know what they’re doing but that’s just not true today.

Major organizations have employed data scientists, statisticians, growth hackers, and all sorts of other data-centric roles in order to get the most out of their digital campaigns. To say that your competitors don’t know what they are doing in 2017 is flat-out stupid.

If there are common features found across major players then you can assume either they found something that works or… they are designing for how visitors expect to use a website.

In both cases this deserves emulation.

For the former, you definitely want to use something that works and if it’s the latter… well… you don’t want to be different for the sake of being different. People want to use sites they know how to use, which is why nearly every ecommerce product page we come across looks something like this:

A Best Buy product page for a front-loading washing machine

  • You’ve got a large zoomable image with multiple images to choose from underneath
  • An SEO friendly product name (perfect for people searching for a specific product model)
  • A clearly displayed price point
  • An “Add to Cart” button that stands out
  • Ratings, reviews, and much more!

So, why don’t we see many different styles of ecommerce product pages? Why don’t we see major innovation in this design scheme?

Well, because it works and is what the customer knows.

Okay, if I didn’t persuade you to adopt best practices then you should leave now. If you think I’m onto something then today is your lucky day.

You’re about to access millions of dollars of ecommerce website testing results at no charge.

The big time, multi-million dollar online retailer websites have a lot in common. One of those being that they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars testing to improve conversion rates.

Look closely and you’ll learn what they’ve spent millions to find out. You’ll see the patterns. You’ll see the lessons they’ve learned.

Here are 21 of them (10 more than the previous edition!)…

Lesson 1 – Reduce the Customer’s Risk

Some of your customers are afraid – so they don’t buy.

They’re afraid that you won’t do what you say you will do. They’re afraid of giving personal and financial information to you. They are afraid of getting ripped off.

NewEgg does 2.5 billion in online sales and they take the reduction of fear very seriously. They prominently display the “NewEgg Promise” throughout the checkout process.

The “NewEgg Promise” to reduce customer fear of buying online with a satisfaction guarantee, privacy and security policy.

Lesson Update

Nearly four years later and people are still scared of getting ripped off. Even though buying habits have changed and people are way more comfortable buying online, they still need to make sure that their data is safe!

In the example Russ shared, the trust factor might be going a little over the top. If you’re constantly pointing out that you’re trustworthy on every page people might actually start calling your trust into question.

If a stranger repeated that “you can trust him” after each sentence, do you really think you’d trust him? Same goes for your website.

You don’t want people thinking about whether they can trust you prior to making any kind of commitments. In general, I wouldn’t start adding some serious trust indicators until the product page or the cart, like in the example below…

Trust factors on a shopping cart page

Lesson 2 – Make Cart Items Visible at All Times

Joseph A. Bank Clothiers, a big digital retailer in their own right, made a change that reduced shopping cart abandonment by as much as 8%. They made items in the shopping cart viewable from everywhere on their site.

They made this (and other) changes after studying the checkout process of the top 200 online retailers.

Crate & Barrel does 365+ million in sales online. Here’s how they are currently handling cart visibility. The number 15 in the image below indicates the number of items in the shopping cart. When you hover over the area, your items become visible.

Crate&Barrel making the shopping cart visible from any page on their site

Lesson Update

Making the shopping cart visible on any page is also fantastic opportunity to build scarcity around your offerings and could be a major game changer for your company.

While this might be a lesson that’s mainly for the big guys, if you have the infrastructure to let people know that they aren’t the only one interested in an item they’re considering, then you have a real chance to boost conversions.

This tactic is widely used by airlines, hotels, and apparel sites. If you don’t have the ability to show if people are viewing certain items, there are other ways to show scarcity.

Look at what is doing on their search results page…

They tell you when there are only a few tickets left for individual flights AND have a counter telling you how many people are purchasing tickets to your destination.

Lesson 3 – Shorten the Number of Checkout Pages

Joseph A. Bank Clothiers also shortened the number of steps in their checkout process from five to three based on their study of the top 200 online retailers. 
Speed and ease of checkout are critical.

Amazon knows this – nobody does it faster than Amazon with their one-click checkout.

Amazon's one-click checkout

Lesson Update

Despite the dated photo in this example, this is still one of the cornerstones of optimization: a simple process is a winning process.

By simplifying your checkout process, e.g., removing… "This is still one of the cornerstones of optimization: a simple process is a winning process."

  • unnecessary steps
  • unnecessary information
  • and superfluous pages

…the more likely you’re going to improve conversion rates.

In some cases, you’ll see retailers have the cart show up on THE SAME PAGE like Bonobos does on their site.

Bonobos shopping cart showing up on the same page

Whenever you add a new product to your cart, you get to review your entire purchase. From here there is just one more step: the actual checkout.

Bonobos checkout

If you’ve never gone through the Bonobos checkout process, you should. They have their checkout process dialed in.

The normal convention is to have an interstitial pop up that moves you to a cart to review. From there you finally get to go to the checkout process, which sometimes can span multiple pages.

The more you can cut this down, the better!

Lesson 4 – Offer Free or Flat Rate Shipping

This isn’t possible for every online retailer and every product – but offering free shipping makes a big difference. The next best thing is flat rate shipping.

"Free shipping is still king. If you offer free shipping, shout it from the rooftops." ~Justin RondeauForrester study showed that nearly 50% of customers abandon their shopping carts because of high shipping costs.

If you offer free or flat rate shipping, advertise that fact early and often.

REI does 318+ million in annual online sales and, as you can see, they are advertising Free Shipping site-wide in the header of the website. They also prominently display free shipping on the product detail page.

REI prominently making it known that they offer free shipping in multiple sections on their product page

If you see a multi-million-dollar online retailer promoting something site wide in the header, it’s probably very important to them.

Lesson Update

Free shipping is still king. If you offer free shipping (or provide it after a purchase reaches a certain value), SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS.

You should include your shipping status in your site-wide header like Home Depot does here:

Sure this isn’t free shipping, but the customer knows how much they have to spend to qualify.

I’ve seen several split tests that show a boost to average order value (AOV) when companies that require a minimum for free shipping share this in the header…

…and anywhere else that makes sense…

Bonobos points out their free shipping during the checkout step

Bonobos points out their shipping is free during every checkout step so customers know about this [now standard] perk. Thanks a lot, Amazon.

Lesson 5 – Reveal All Fees as Early as Possible

Sometimes you simply can’t offer free shipping. Or, there are other fees that you must charge.

That’s OK, just reveal shipping and other charges as early as possible.

This WebCredible UK study indicates that nearly half of customers abandon their shopping cart because of hidden fees revealed upon checkout.

This is Step 1 of the NewEgg checkout process for an 84-inch television ­– a product that isn’t possible to ship for free. NewEgg, a multi-billion-dollar retailer, doesn’t wait to start talking shipping charges – do you?

NewEgg letting customers calculate the shipping cost

Lesson Update

Nobody likes surprise charges or fees, so don’t surprise your customer! Let them know how much they’re going to spend before they get to the cart and bounce because of sticker shock.

Not only is this a best practice, but it is REQUIRED by law in many European countries. If you sell in Germany and surprise them with fees, then you should expect to see some surprise fees in the form of fines really darn soon.

Lesson 6 – Allow People to “Gift It”

The big online retailers put the processes in place to give products and services to others. And they advertise it. does over 300 million in online sales each year. Notice the “Give a Gift” call-to-action in the primary navigation.

"Give a gift" call-to-action with

Lesson Update

So, this kind of reminds me of the “Wish List” but still has some useful functionality. The option to buy something for someone where they don’t see the price tag and the item is delivered to someone OTHER than the purchaser is definitely not a bad thing.

However, this is a little outdated but could be a cool feature to add during the holiday season.

Lesson 7 – Give as Many Payment Options as Possible

Does your website take checks? does.

Walmart’s Cynthia Lin was quoted on the addition of check payments at, “Initial data shows we’re reaching customers who have not bought from us before.”

In fact, even accepts cash. If you order online and select cash, you simply visit a Walmart store within 48 hours to make your cash payment.

You may not accept cash or check on your ecommerce store but do you accept American Express? PayPal? Are you offering financing through BillMeLater? Google Wallet?

Big digital retailers know that more payment options equal more payments.

B&H Photo offers credit card, BillMeLater, and PayPal payment options:

B&H offering multiple payment options

Lesson Update

So, there are a metric butt ton of ways to buy things online!

The many, many different payment options

I’m sorry to say it, but providing as many ways as possible is actually counter-productive these days.

If you sell internationally, you should be using geo-targeting to make sure you are showing payment options that are best for that region.

For example, Dutch visitors use the payment option IDEAL more than US visitors. While a US visitor could use IDEAL, it is more likely that they won’t.

However, that doesn’t mean you should completely nix this option. Instead, you should show it for visitors who would be MOST LIKELY to use it.

So, before you list every payment option under the sun, I recommend looking at the regions you do business in most. Then evaluate whether you are meeting their preferred needs with your current options.

Lesson 8 – Show Progress Through the Checkout Process

You’ve heard it before: A confused mind always says no.

"A confused mind doesn't convert."Let’s restate that to: A confused mind doesn’t convert. And one way to stave off confusion during the checkout process is to show shoppers their progress.

People want to know where they are and how much farther they need to go to complete their purchase. knows it is important to show shopping cart progress.

First step of the shopping cart

Lesson Update

This is another tried and true method.

Anytime you have multiple steps, it is a best practice to show visitors where they are in the process. This can (and should) be applied in your checkout process as well as on your lead generation pages!

Lesson 9 – Allow Customers to Add Items to a “Wish List”

Depending on what you sell, some visitors to your ecommerce store are not ready to buy right now.

They are doing research. Kicking tires. Comparing prices. Comparing solutions.

According to the aforementioned Forrester study, 41% of shoppers abandon their online shopping cart because they were not prepared to make the purchase.

B&H Photo gives these unprepared shoppers an option to add items to their wish list.

B&H Photo gives these unprepared shoppers an option to add items to their wish list

Lesson Update

The wish list is a funny thing. It’s always included on sites but I can’t think of a time I’ve ever used it!

With the rise of social commerce channels like Pinterest and Facebook, there are more organic “wish lists” out there.

In addition to the social wish lists, the use of cookies to save carts and other abandon cart technology has rendered the wish list somewhat useless.

Will a wish list hurt you? Probably not.

Are there different ways to frame the wish list? Absolutely! Check out Wayfair’s take on the wish list. Introducing the “Idea Board”:

Wayfair's Idea Board

Lesson 10 – Don’t Force Them to Create an Account

At least not before you’ve made the sale.

The Webcredible research showed that 29% of online shoppers dislike creating an account in order to complete a purchase.

Multi-million dollar ecommerce stores, in most cases, give shoppers the ability to check out as a guest or “Express Checkout.”

Here’s how is handling the account creation process:

REI letting customers create an account or checkout as a guest

Crate & Barrel knows it too…

Crate & Barrel letting new customers checkout as a guest and returning customers use Express Checkout

Lesson Update

This lesson will never change. ALWAYS include guest checkout. Seriously.

However, if you’re feeling crazy, you could take a page out of Home Depot’s book and require an email to checkout as a guest (and try to get them to create an account created after the purchase).

Home Depot requiring an email address to checkout as a guest

Lesson 11 – Provide Lots of Interactive Product Images

E-tailing’s Connected Consumer survey showed that customers want to see high-quality product images and lots of them. They want to be able to zoom and rotate those images and they want to see products in different colors, sizes, and other options.

Product images sell and the big online retailers know this.

Notice all the options B&H Photo offers for this camera bag:

B&H provides lots of images and ways for customers to interact when looking at this camera bag, including customer photos

They allow zoom, rotation, and lots of photos from customers.

Lesson Update

Online retailers live and die by their product shots and four years later nothing has changed! A single product shot just isn’t enough and often just a “product shot” isn’t enough.

It’s better to show the product in use and from as many different angles as possible. There are some retailers that have moved to the 360-degree product shot with hovering zooms!

A hovering zoom of a mens casual boot

In addition to higher resolution images, most retailers include videos too. The more you can make a customer feel like they are experiencing the product in “real life,” and not in a digital environment, the more likely they are to buy.

Alright! Now that we’ve covered what still works and what needs a few tweaks, it’s time to move onto some brand-new lessons we’ve learned from retail giants.

Lesson 12 – Product Image Updates When Customization Options Are Clicked

Do you know what people don’t like? Guess work.

If you don’t include any…

  • color options
  • size options
  • engraving

…or anything that isn’t in your standard photo, then you need to start. Just as Bonobos does on this shirt product page:

Men's Bonobos Daily Grind Limited Edition Shirt that lets users select different shirt patterns and see what the shirt looks like

I know this requires a lot of upkeep, but nobody wants to buy something they are “unsure” about.

Lesson 13 – Grid Style Category Pages

I started my research for my Content & Commerce Summit talk by studying the most prominent pages on some of the top retailers’ websites.

One of these page types was the “Category Page.” This page is broken down into two tiers:

  • Tier 1: Picking the product family you’re looking for.
  • Tier 2: The list of individual products in that family.

In nearly every split test I see, the more items you can get in a single row, the better the page performed. For example, people who had a single product per row (or what is referred to as “list view”) saw lower conversions than sites with 4-5 products per row.

Here’s an example of a “List View” from Best Buy:

An example of a "list view" from Best Buy

Now here’s an example of “Grid View” from Best Buy:

An example of "grid view" from Best Buy

The vast majority of the sites I looked at are using grid view with some variations among what is included in the grid. Of these sites, a few of them provided options for “list view.”

Most sites use buttons that let users switch between “list” and “grid” views. Option to view in "List" or "Grid" view on a website

However, this is the trend on desktops. I would not recommend using the “grid style” on mobile since the screen is so darn small.

Lesson 14 – Prominent Badging to Accentuate Products

Here’s another example of “grid view,” this time from Home Depot. And you’ll notice some slight differences between what is showcased here and what is seen in the product panes Best Buy uses in the previous example.

A "grid view" example from Home Depot

Best Buy relies on coloration and text to differentiate products from one another. However, Home Depot uses coloration, text, and badges to highlight specific products.

In this example, Home Depot highlights when a product is at a “New Low Price.” Below they also include other product specific seals like “WaterSense” for their faucets.

Home Depot includes a “WaterSense” seal for their faucets

If it were between these four faucets, and I was a stickler for EPA standards, it looks like that first Kohler option loses out.

If you have ways to make your products stand out on your category pages, then do it! Without badging or other differentiating factors, your customer is going to be paralyzed by choice.

Lesson 15 – Cool It with Filters

Speaking of choice paralysis, what the heck is the deal with all the filters on ecommerce sites?! Reading that back, I sound like an early 90’s comedian… Oh, well.

Poor comedy skills aside, I’m very serious here.

Why are we putting the onus on our customer to filter every little detail? I’m sure there is plenty of data to suggest which filters are most used and which are least used.

Do your customer a favor, cool it with the number of filters you offer. They’ll either eventually over filter or just get lost with all the options.

On Home Depot’s website, they have 12 filter categories with over 100 options to choose from. Here’s a snippet to show you what I mean:

Home Depot filtering options

That’s too much.

Lesson 16 – Store Locator Option (or Integrated Geo-Location)

This is an easy one and is good for both mobile and desktops if you have a brick mortar store.

You could go with the quick and dirty and ask people to fill in their zip code…

View stores based on ZIP Code

…prompt them with a notification asking for location access…

Walmart prompting a user with a notification asking for location access

…or use their Geo-IP to automatically identify their location.

Best Buy using Geo-IP to automatically identify a user's location

Lesson 17 – Perpetual Scrolling Sucks

Perpetual scrolling used to be the talk of the town. I know when I said reducing the number of steps between purchase is ALWAYS a good idea but perpetual scroll is just a bad way to do it.

A lot of consumers will use your site mega footer as a way to navigate your website. If the page is constantly growing then that eliminates a useful navigation avenue.

I found that only one of the companies I looked at still uses perpetual scroll. Some pages had as many as 72 items on each page, but they still had pagination and a next button.

An example of a website with perpetual scroll

When you use perpetual scroll, people lose relational context. If they can’t recall where they saw an item, then they can’t buy it!

It’s a lot easier to say, “Oh, I really liked that shoe on Page 2,” instead of saying, “Oh, I really liked that shoe on Scroll 4.”

Lesson 18 – Sliders Are Still Prominent and They Still Stink

I honestly don’t know why companies are still using sliding carousels.

Apple using a sliding carousel on their home page

They are a LAZY answer to a complex merchandising question: What should be seen first, second, last, or just hidden in the back? However, sliding carousels don’t solve the damn merchandising question at all!

Sure, a slider gets more offers and content on the homepage, but you still have to pick who is in Position 1 vs. Position 4. By adding a slider, you aren’t making a definitive statement about what should be in Position 1 because you’re just putting everything there.

So, the merchandising question is still there and you’ve added some pretty heavy images as well as distracting motion.


In fact, with the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, Walmart ditched their sliding carousel that showcased products and deals for a static image to show store closures and relief efforts.

Walmart using a static banner image on their website giving information on store closures and relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey

This was likely a geo-targeted banner, but it shows that when you want to get a message across, use a static image or specific video instead of a slider.

Lesson 19 – Feedback and Livechat is Underutilized

This one was a surprise.

Of the ten retail giants looked at, only three of them used some kind of feedback or livechat.

Home Depot had both a livechat and feedback tab. The other two companies that had one or the other were Nordstrom and Staples.

Home Depot feedback tab

With the rise of chatbots and other ways to create conversations with your customers, this is a HUGE opportunity for small to midsize retailers trying to compete with the big guys.

Lesson 20 – “Add to Cart” Interstitial

Nearly every company I looked at had some kind of Add to Cart interstitial when I added a product.

An example of an Add to Cart interstitial when adding a basketball to the cart

Not only is this a great way to recognize the Add to Cart action, but it provides cross-sell opportunity and a final CTA to “check out.”

If you’re just adding a product to the cart without a modal pop, e.g., just adding a “1” to the cart icon or showing a drop-down tab with the newly added product details, then you are leaving money on the table.

Lesson 21 – Order Tracking

This is a nice, quick, and dirty one to add to your site. Sometimes your visitors are just coming back to see where the heck their package is.

A site including the Track Orders option in their site-wide header

Make sure to include this option in your site-wide header and to include some related cross-sells on the results page to try to get some sweet, sweet return purchases.

These are just a handful of trends I’ve noticed the retail industry giants using on their websites. I’ll be sure to be back with more as I see them (and to update the ones that are no longer in use).

Justin Rondeau

Justin Rondeau

Justin Rondeau has been doing this whole “Marketing” thing since 2010, when he was mildly […okay maybe more than mildly] obsessed with all things, data, email, optimization, and split testing. Currently he is the co-owner and President of InvisiblePPC - the #1 white-label PPC provider for agencies. Previously he co-founded Truconversion and even sat at the helm as General Manager of DigitalMarketer and Scalable Labs. Rondeau has trained thousands of marketers, spoken on hundreds of stages, runs a delightful team of marketers, has dozens of shirts louder than his voice, and loves one hockey team: the Boston Bruins.

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