How Many Steps Are Optimal For Customers To Complete An Ecommerce Purchase?

cart_checkoutThis question is one that does not have a clear cut answer (although there are lots of opinions, even mine). Factors that affect what is an optimal number of steps to complete a purchase online include the type of industry the merchant is in, and the average number of dollars spent per customer. Let’s take a look at what a few other ecommerce blogs think…

Some say Three is the magic number

three

From the GetElastic.com blog, What is the number of pages in the checkout process?, this post shows that their survey in 2007 found that three steps was the optimal number from the cart to the thank you page. The study included the top 100 Retailers and a look at conversion rates (not specific to just the number of checkout steps). From this report, you can also conclude that an excessive number of steps will cause more cart abandonment (who really wants to wade through 8 screens to make a purchase?).

A recent blog post from TheSavvySeller.com titled 10 Ways Small eCommerce Sellers Can Compete with the Big Guys also agrees with GetElastic that three is a good number of steps for the entire checkout process.

I think TWO is optimal, and here’s why

I have to disagree with three steps being the optimal number from cart to completion. The GetElastic post was from 2007 (a little dated), and was a small sampling of only the top 100 retailers. The conversion percentage was not directly tied to the number of steps, so there were certainly other factors besides number of steps that affected the conversion rates. If the survey included A/B testing results over the same period of time for comparison, this would have been great data to analyze. The other TheSavvySeller article agrees with GetElastic, but it’s not an in-depth look at why three was selected.

Based on my 13+ years of experience as a web host owner that caters to ecommerce clients, I believe the optimal number of steps to complete a purchase is:

TWO

Two steps keeps the process streamlined, and I believe breaks up the pages logically while giving the customer the most important information upfront. It doesn’t overly complicate the flow of the order being placed, and minimizes clicks and actions for the shopper to finish their purchase. Here’s how I see it:

Step 1: Cart page

The first page, which I call the Cart page, should include the following information:

  • Items being ordered, including prices
    It’s obvious, but the cart page should have a summary of what is being purchased and for how much.
  • Shipping rates based on zip/country and items in the cart
    Get the customer the shipping rates as soon as possible so they know what their options are. The first page is a great place for this, so the buyer knows the total cost of their order right away.
  • Tax being charged
    This gives the shopper their total out of pocket expense up front.
  • Optional coupons, gift certificates
    These affect the total dollar value, so should be on the first page.
  • Type of payment to complete purchase
    This makes the second page load up with the appropriate payment information for the customer to make a payment.

Here is a great example of such a cart page from a merchant using ShopSite as their ecommerce software:

Step 1 (click to enlarge)

Step 1 (click to enlarge)

Step 2: Checkout page

Step 2, which I call the checkout page, should be the last step before the order is complete. This page should contain the following:

  • Summary of items and total
    Let them see the items and totals again so they can review what they ordered.
  • Shipping and Billing Address
    Put them side by side, have a checkbox for “same as billing/shipping” and it’s compact and easy to use.
  • Payment Information
    The appropriate minimum information required for the buyer’s chosen payment method
  • Special notes, subscribe to newsletter, etc…
    The last few items related to the overall order and “after the sale” interaction before the process is complete

Here is another live example of a good checkout page from an ecommerce merchant using ShopSite:

Step 2 - Checkout (click to enlarge)

Step 2 – Checkout (click to enlarge)

The images above show a streamlined process that includes 2 steps for a customer to complete their purchase. It’s simple, quick, and gives the customer what they need as soon as possible to buy their items.

Should you have a Confirm/Review Page?

For our ecommerce clients, 50.9% of the stores we host have a confirmation screen. Some merchants have decided that adding another screen may be detrimental to the process, possibly adding another opportunity for the customer to change their mind, or become confused about when they have actually finished their order.

Other merchants want a confirmation screen to avoid typos or mistakes in an order. They want to the customer to be able to review the entire experience before clicking “Submit”.

The right answer is to perform testing on what converts better, what helps reduce order mistakes, and if you choose a confirm page, MAKE SURE this page is clearly marked. Don’t leave any doubt as to what the page is for, and that the customer must press another button to complete/submit their order. Consider a submit button at the top and bottom to make this crystal clear.

ShopSite is Two Steps by default

The ShopSite ecommerce software, which is our primary ecommerce offering, is designed for this two step completion process (excluding the optional confirmation page). ShopSite has a cart page and checkout page that incorporate all of the above items I’ve described for an optimal checkout process. It also allows for an optional confirmation page if desired. We’ve found ShopSite to be a solid ecommerce platform. Although we continually review other ecommerce offerings, ShopSite continues to be our number one choice for any small to medium sized business looking for a stable and easy to use application not only for the merchant, but for the customer as well.

No matter what ecommerce application you use for your ecommerce store, consider the number of steps a customer must complete in order to purchase their items. I cannot say that TWO steps is the best choice for everyone, but in my experience, we’ve found it to be an excellent choice for getting the customer through the register with minimal pain, and maximum information that they need to change from window shopper to buyer.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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5 Comments

  1. Just a quick follow-up. The recent Shop.org pre-holiday survey indicated that the number one thing that matters most to consumers is to see the complete shopping cart total before checkout. This lends itself nicely to the TWO step checkout process, where the first cart page has all the totals, including shipping.

    http://blog.shop.org/2009/10/22/research-eholiday-09-pre-holiday-results/

  2. Janice says:

    Interesting. I currently have a confirmation page. Over the past few months I have received at least a dozen calls from customers wanting to know where their stuff is. Checking my records shows I never received their order because they never finished the last step. I thought giving them one more time to make sure it’s all right would help. Come to think of it, I still get a fair share of mistyped email addresses, typos in addresses, and even follow up calls that they sometimes entered the wrong product or a size. So it’s obvious now that the purpose it was intially intended isn’t working anyway.

    Janice

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Janice. One thing is for sure: people do not read or check things very closely. A confirm page can help in many cases, but sometimes people just click through to the end without reviewing.

      If you do have a confirm page, just make sure it’s clear that the customer must click the final button to actually submit the order. Buttons at the top and bottom can help in this regard.

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