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See It. Gotta Have It! 

I was standing in line at the grocery store behind a woman with a very sensible selection of products arrayed on the conveyor belt. She was watching the cashier scan each item. Then I saw her turn to her right, grab a plastic box of mints from one of those in-your-face candy displays and add it to her collection. Now, I'm not as green as I look, and I'll bet she didn't plan on buying those mints. I'll bet she didn't even give it a second thought. And that is impulse buying at its best. The store made another sale.

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We've all done it. I even wound up with a really cool-looking pen I just couldn't resist when I saw it poking out of a box at the checkout of an office supply store. Naturally I didn't go in the store for that pen, and I have to admit I can't even recall exactly how it got into my bag. Understanding and tapping into this propensity for impulse buying is one of the strengths of the bricks and mortar business world. But can it become a common feature on the Internet?

Like lots of things we just sort of intuitively understand, a straightforward definition of impulse buying is difficult to come by. But you can get the gist through the words most folks use to describe it: rash, instinctive, not necessary, uncontrolled, not always smart (with the buyer characterized as an "unwilling victim"), regrettable, fun, adventurous, irrational, and oh yeah, impulsive.

In the Ivory Tower, lots of academic types have tried to get a handle on exactly what impulse buying is and why people engage in the behavior. That turns out to be a very un-simple task. There are impulsive purchasing patterns and cognitive purchasing patterns; there is “reminder impulse buying” and there is “pure impulse buying.”1 I won't even go into how impulse buying can be a variety of compulsive buying. Whew! It can all get very confusing.

I can tell you that humans are prone to purchase certain classes of products on impulse. In general, folks get impulsive about commodities (for example, food, clothing, shampoo) and make these impulsive purchases when their normal internal control monitors are compromised. People also get impulsive about stuff on sale. Ever notice sometimes price completely overrides need? I mean, only in other people, of course. And pure impulse buying is unplanned. It just happens. At least, it does out there in the bricks and mortar world.

So what about on the Internet? There's a fellow, Paul Romanchuk, who has this scheme to make online shopping a more 3-D experience in order to stimulate browsing and impulse buying.

Visitors [to a website] are made to feel as if they are walking down aisles perusing the goods. Marketers can also set up certain "trip wires" that send out appropriate messages - and these can go beyond what would normally occur in a regular mall. For example, if the user is browsing a certain section of the … store … a book on the shelf may open and close to attract the attention of the browser. Or, if you're in a music store … and you walk by a particular section, you can hear a voiceover promoting the latest release, says Romanchuk.2

I bet you can hear me groan, right? Given the current level of technology, I don't even want to think of the download times involved and the waiting required as a visitor walks through this virtual store, or of all the plug-ins Joe and Josephine Consumer are going to have to download. Simple it ain't, and simple is the key to online sales. Plus, study after study proves that most people by far don’t enter an online store to browse; they enter to buy. In other words, even if everybody had broadband and all the software pre-installed, Romanchuk’s idea still is another example of putting a “cool” tech idea ahead of what the online shopper wants. Do I reeeeally need to say any strategy aimed at increasing impulse buying online must work not only with the currently dominant level of technology but also, and even more important, with the psychological and behavioral patterns and processes of online customers?

The only example I can think of that allows for even quasi-impulse purchasing is Amazon.com's combination of recommendations of related products and its 1-Click process. You’re presented with an item that’s interesting, and you know that with a single click, you've bought it. According to a poll by FreeRide Media, experts say the ease of one-click purchasing can indeed foster impulse buying.3 They found that 58 percent of adults admitted they would spend up to $100 on an unplanned, unnecessary purchase over the Internet.

IF impulse buying is going to find its niche in the web world, it will only happen when the simplicity of the site, combined with impulse-class products, allows for true impulse purchasing. When thinking enters the equation, you just can't call the purchase purely impulsive anymore. If a site takes you to your shopping cart to review your selection, you have to think. If it then offers you the opportunity to put that selection in a buy-later category, you have to make a decision. If you have to follow a series of links to locate a product, you are making a whole series of decisions. If you have to fill out a form with all your billing and delivery information, you are light years away from impulse.

Compare that to grabbing those mints, tossing them on the counter, then painlessly and without further consideration, swiping your card to pay for all the things you were going to buy anyway, plus that one bit of rash extravagance. Your challenge is to create an environment where that can happen without turning your site into a something akin to a bad video game.

1. See "Objects, Decision Considerations and Self-Image in Men's and Women's Impulse Purchases," Dittmar, Beatie and Friese, University of Sussex. <http://www.ukc.ac.uk/ESRC/impulse.html>. The ladies require permission to quote, and I'm in a hurry, so I'll just direct you to their article on the web.

2. "Virtual impulse buying a reality," Wendy Cuthbert, Strategy: The Canadian Marketing Report, 3 January 2000, <http://www.strategymag.com/articles/st27716.asp>

3. "Impulse buying, holiday shoppers contribute to e-commerce boom," Jennifer LeClair, Office.com, <http://www.office.com/global/0,2724,65-10318,FF.html> 

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Coming soon to a website near you – 
in fact, maybe YOURS!

Dear Digital Entrepreneur:

You guys and gals have been asking and asking, so OK: I'm now making house calls. That’s right, I'm visiting your own websites and will be writing in future issues about how you can apply the stuff we talk about here.

So, want a free Grokanalysis of your site? It’s simple. Just click here, fill out the form, send it to us, and if I think your site illustrates something that will be of interest to a lot of our readers, you’re in!

Good luck!!

The Grok


Establishing Credibility

In case you haven't noticed, it's crazy out there. Dot-coms dropping right and left. Word that investors are keeping their wallets in their pockets. NASDAQ dancing a limbo to a pole that's getting lower and lower. You gotta figure this stuff is going through your customers' minds when they come to your site. There they are, sitting at their keyboards and monitors, wondering whether or not you are going to be the next bomb. It's not a situation that inspires confidence - nor does it inspire buying behavior! And that’s on top of the security concerns many of your potential customers still have.

If you lack credibility, your prospects simply won’t buy from you. So, what are you doing to help your customers to know you're the sort of company they want to do business with? How are you soothing their very real and very understandable fears?

We all should know by now online sales are here to stay. What we're seeing is just a pretty intense shake-out period. (See my article, “Dont Let the Pendulum Hit You in the Derriere <http://www.grokdotcom.com/swingingpendulum.htm>.”) And despite it, more folks are buying online now than ever before. So you want to do everything in your power a) to stay afloat (duh!) and b) to encourage folks to buy from you over your competition. One very important way you do this is to establish your credibility. Here are a few ideas to get you started, so when customers land on your site, they get right away that you are honest, trustworthy, reputable and credible.

Contact information needs to be available, not just on the home page but throughout the site. Folks find it reassuring to know there's an actual phone number or an actual address associated with your business. Sure, it's a basic tenet of Customer Service 101 so people can get help (and know you care enough about them to offer help), but it is also an indication of your credibility. Even if no one ever calls!

One dead give-away that compromises your credibility pertains to managing what insiders call "the freshness factor." Have you still got that seasonal content up there four months after the fact? Is your most recent press release a year old? Do you tell people when content has been updated? It might seem trivial, but folks are put off when you can't be bothered to keep your site current. It tends to suggest you can't be bothered to treat them promptly and well. And it also means they can’t be confident what they’re reading and seeing even applies anymore.

Your policies are another indication of your credibility. Is your privacy policy accessible, clear, simple, and uncompromising? Do you have guarantees? You do, right? But are they, again, accessible, clear, simple, and uncompromising or do they read like they were written by a lawyer intent on making sure none of your customers can ever actually use them? How are you going to service a product that has a problem? Will you ship on time, and what will you do if you can’t? Will you accept exchanges and refunds? How complicated is that for your customers? What can you say that will assure them you deliver on your promises?

Yet another big component of credibility has to do with your credentials, and I don't mean the ones that get framed and hung on walls or listed on resumes. I mean the ones that demonstrate to your customers that you get the job done in a way that not just satisfies but delights them. Personal testimonials are one of the easiest ways to communicate this to your prospects. Seeing that other folks were blown away by your service or product is an enormous boost to your credibility. Another useful testimonial, if you can get one, is from a well-known public figure, and there’s also the “implied” testimonial in a statement such as, “Our bowling ball used by more professionals than any other.”1

But over and above all these specific examples, you must make sure the entire tone of your site focuses on your customers, not you. Use language that let's them know they come first. As a matter of fact, my friends at Future Now have just developed a great new free tool to guide your efforts in that direction. Check it out at <http://www.futurenowinc.com/wewe.htm>.

When you make the effort to build credibility, your customers are going to feel a lot better about taking the plunge, and that's going to make everyone happy!

1. For a great discussion on this subject, see "How to Establish Credibility with Your Customers." Sam Robbins. Web Gold Electronic Newsletter, vol. 3, #26, October 13, 2000. <http://www.bizpromo.com>.

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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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