What does Walmart have in common with Ecommerce Usability?

Reading Time: 13 mins

Ecommerce websites and user experience – a story

Ecommerce websites and user experience

While I work and live in England, my immediate family is back in the States. Every so often I go back to visit. Apart from feeling the wonderful warmth of the sun again, it’s always nice to see ‘big’ scenery – mountains, vast fields and wild rivers.

The last time I went back to the USA, was for my little sister’s birthday. While I was staying there, I had to make a foray into the depths of one of America’s chain ‘drug stores’. I wasn’t running a complex errand. I simply had to pick up birthday candles and allergy medication.

My family live in a small city just outside Sacramento, California. Though the population isn’t huge, there’s a shopping outlet to make it seem so. This was where I went and my choice was simple: get candles from the Walmart or the pharmacy next to it.

If you’ve ever been to America or ever shopped at Walmart you will probably understand why I chose the pharmacy. Number 1, it was smaller and would presumably be easier to navigate. Number 2, it was sure to be less busy and I’d be able to find things without having to weave in between oversized shopping trolleys. And number three, there’s something immensely depressing about the size of Walmart and the amount it stocks. It reminds me that I am deep within the clutches of consumerism, that I’m supporting a company that pays rubbish wages, and that I’m helping to pay for some fat cat’s sailing trip to the Bahamas.

So, when I pulled my father’s car into the parking lot and looked between the two, the pharmacy won.

Outside it was 105°F (approximately 41°C). I could feel my shirt sticking to my back. The cars in the parking lot hovered in a mirage of heat. The sky was pale blue and cloudless. There were no trees, no birds. Only the endless flat fields of the Sacramento Valley and the buzz of traffic from the nearby highway.

I made my way toward the store. It paled in size compared to Walmart but at least looked vaguely more welcoming – there were large windows and it was a friendlier brown colour – not the ominous grey warehouse-look of Walmart. The doors opened automatically and I braced myself for the blast of cool air.

It didn’t come.

Fine, I could deal with that. It wasn’t pleasant but I just had to get the candles and the allergy meds and get out. I ignored the shelves funnelling me into the store – the assorted sale items – batteries, batteries, earphones, perfume, candles, soft toys and lots of other fiddly little things. If it were cooler I might have browsed a bit.

Directly ahead of me was a photo booth where you could print your own photos from a USB or a memory card. There wasn’t any logic to its placement as the shelves to either side of it were magazines and shampoo. Surely it should have been with the erroneous bits of digital equipment?

Still, I wasn’t here to tell them how to run their business. First on the list – candles. Probably near the stationery – that was generally in the vicinity of cards, wrapping paper, etc. I looked up to try and find signs. The only visible signposting was the large numbers 1-12 that hung from the roof and ran the length of the store. Nothing that said ‘stationery’ or ‘food’ or ‘toys’.

I could feel sweat prickling at my neck and I looked around so that I could ask someone. There was just one woman manning the checkout and she had a queue of 3 or 4 people. She appeared to be having problems scanning a tub of ice-cream.

I walked the length of the store, peering between the aisles, hoping there’d be someone to ask. And then, right at the end I saw a man in a red t-shirt pushing a crate of products. He disappeared behind a door.

That’s when I realised I was standing in a stationery aisle which was stocked full of cards, ribbons, scissors, and tape. Perfect. I looked for the candles. Nothing. Maybe they were with the children’s toys? Or perhaps the lighters behind the counter? Both options seemed as remote and unlikely as each other. Fine. I’d find the allergy meds first.

The pharmacy section was easy enough to find and from there I just worked my way back to a nearby shelf filled with boxes and bottles and pills – a vibrant wall of blue and red. At least that was logically placed! However, finding the allergy medications took another 5 minutes – they were crammed in between vitamin C tablets and band aids. You would have thought that at this time of year they’d at least warrant a more prominent position!

I was feeling quite irritable. If I’d gone to Walmart, even though I didn’t like the company and all that it stood for, I’d have found what I was looking for by now.

Thankfully the queue had dissipated. The cashier was available.

“Excuse me, do you know where the candles are?” She looked at me for a couple of seconds.


“Yes.” She repeated the word again before seeming to remember that I had asked a question. I’ve often noticed that Americans listen more to my accent than to what I’m actually saying.

“Oh, yeah, they should be with the cards and the giftwrap. Aisle 12.”

“I’ve checked. There’s nothing there.” She looked away, now bored.

“Oh, well then we’re out of stock. Do you want to pay for that?” She gestured lazily to the pills in my hand.

I stared at her for a moment – appalled by her lack of help. No, as a matter of fact, I did not want to buy the stupid pills and all thanks to her attitude and the poorly laid out store. But then I thought of having to find them all over again in the massive warehouse of Walmart.

I handed the package to her.

“That’ll be seven dollars.” She looked at the bill I was handing her. “I don’t have change for a twenty. Do you have a card?”

Ten minutes later I was at a Walmart checkout paying for my allergy pills and the candles.

“It’s two for one on the allergy pills mam,” the cashier said. She put my items in a plastic bag. “Shall I ring someone to get you another box?”

I smiled. “Yes please.”

Despite the horrible eggy smell that always seemed to hover between Walmart’s aisles, and the frenzied shoppers, it was cool and my mood had improved. The aisles were simply labelled and logically positioned. Upon walking into the store I got an immediate overview. Clothes ahead, electronics at the back, food to my right, gardening equipment and tools to my left, and as with every Walmart, the pharmacy always near the jewellery which was always near the clothes. I found the candles by asking someone in the pharmacy. They led me to the person that was in charge of that particular section of the store. From there they were practically placed in my hands.

And you can bet that now when I have to choose between that small, unassuming drug store and Walmart, I choose the latter.

The moral of the story

It doesn’t really matter whether a customer likes you or not. It helps if they do like you of course, but if not, you’ve just got to make the in-store customer experience as good as possible. The same thing applies to websites except here you’ve got to make the user experience as good as possible.

Consider what Walmart and the drug store got right vs wrong:

  • Walmart’s physical store came across as overwhelming, unattractive and smelling of egg, instead of friendly and manageable. While their ‘warehouse-look’ might say ‘we’ve got everything’, for the emotional buyers – women in general – it’s also going to say ‘stay away it’s a mad house in here and, well it’s not a particularly pretty place to be’.
  • Think about the difference between the way the drugstore and Walmart signposted their aisles/sections. In Walmart it was clear and one could immediately get an idea for how the store was laid out and where to go to find something specific.
  • Customer service – the difference between the two was remarkable. In the drug store, it wasn’t just non-existent, it was also rude. In Walmart, help was at hand and even the cashier jumped to call someone to get the extra box of allergy pills.
  • In the drug store, product placement was poor. Sales items might have been better placed near the checkout (when people were already committed to making a purchase), than on the shelves at the entrance. According to Paco Underhill in ‘Why we Buy’, products placed right at the entrance/just inside the store in the ‘buffer zone’, are often missed as we are still acclimatising to our surroundings. Also, allergy medications might have featured prominently, especially during allergy season.

These are just a few of the differences. You may well be able to pick out more. But what does this have to do with websites and more particularly ecommerce websites?

The truth is that the online shopping experience should mimic the real shopping experience. And the real shopping experience should be as positive as possible. After all, when people feel good about a product, brand or place, they often return to it, buy it, recommend it. Go for a good customer experience or user experience over anything else. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s working well or working as well as it could be. Make sure it’s working for your customers first.

In Walmart everything was clearly labelled and logically positioned. The same should be true on a website. Your navigation should be clear and simple and the items in it logically placed. If you’ve got sales items make them stand out – create a section for these items. If you’ve got an ‘about us’ page or a ‘contact page’, make it easily accessible from the homepage.

If a customer doesn’t have an account with you, make sure that they can buy without one. Walmart, unlike places like Costco or Sam’s Club, doesn’t have a card you have to show before you can enter, and I imagine that because of this, they are overwhelmingly more successful. On your website make the user experience simple. Let them pay immediately, without signing up if they want to.

As with the drug store that didn’t have candles in stock, if you don’t have a product on your website, allow customers to register to receive a notification when it is available. If you do run out of stock, don’t tell the customer only when they get to the final checkout process, let them know long before, when they’re actually viewing the product or take it off the website!

Also, if your clients can’t find something easily, don’t give them the option of leaving your site or your store as I did the pharmacy. Make sure there’s someone available to answer questions (perhaps a live-chat on site?) or that your contact information is clear and visible and your response comes within a decent period of time. If you’ve got a very deep website, what about making use of a search bar? For websites like Amazon, this is the only way to search – unless you are doing idle browsing.

Don’t forget that happy customers are returning customers and your website’s usability – friendly / not – will create a particular type of customer. If you want someone to return (which of course you should!) you must make sure that your site is as easy to use as possible.

Areas that often drive customers away include a lengthy checkout process, non-disclosed pricing information, poor navigation, no search functionality and a lack of trust in the site itself.

If you’d like to find out more about ecommerce usability practices, stay tuned. The next blog post will give you that ultimate checklist.