Online shoppers do not base their buying decisions on single factors, such as price or whether or not they like your web design. Instead, much research is showing that buyers are using what might be called an “holistic” approach. In other words they are taking into account a range of different factors all at the same time. In psychology this is termed “Gestalt” and is based on ideas from the 19th Century Austrian philosopher, Christian von Ehrenfels. What he and his colleagues did was to suggest that we perceive the world around us by understanding things as a whole, rather than the individual parts.

What do you see in this image? Your website needs to take a similar approach, building up a complete image from individual parts.

What do you see in this image? Your website needs to take a similar approach, building up a complete image from individual parts.

A good way of seeing what is meant is to look at the black and white image on the right. Most people can see a Dalmatian dog sniffing the ground. However, no dog has actually been drawn. The drawing is merely a collection of black splodges. Our brain assembles those black splodges and attempts to make meaning from all of them, resulting in our brains convincing us there is a dog there. Now, it’s true that there are criticisms of Gestalt theory, but there is clearly something in it.

And new information on the way people buy online from Strathclyde Business School suggests that we do indeed take a “whole” account of web shops. Online retailers provide us with an array of different cues to help us. There are categories, price tags, colour codes, pictures, shopping cart buttons, guarantees – the list goes on and on. Take a look at any reasonable online shop and you will see a plethora of signals to help us decide to buy.

But what this new study confirms is that we take all of these signals together – not as individual parts. We don’t say “aha, that’s good, there’s the shopping cart button” and then move on to analyse whether or not the terms and conditions are acceptable. We do all of that assessment in one go.

What this implies is that we need to present our signals that encourage purchasing in a way that makes it quick and easy for the Gestalt process to work. In other words, if you complicate your online shop’s signals, you make it less likely that people will buy anything because getting the whole picture is more difficult. Imagine the Dalmatian dog image with more dots and different coloured dots.

Research has confirmed there are three broad areas that online retailers need to concentrate on if the holistic impression is to get through to shoppers.

1. Ease of understanding: Your web site and the processes you offer must be easily understood. This means if your shopping process cannot be used by a child, you are not doing well enough. You might not be aiming at children, of course, but if they can understand the buying process or what you have to offer you will do well with adults. Far too many online shops are only usable by tech-savvy experts, often with a degree in engineering. Think of Amazon’s One Click buying process – simple, one click and you’ve bought it.

2. Informativeness: People need all of the information that helps them make their buying decision in one place. Shops that only give cursory, brief details don’t allow the “big picture” to be built up. Again, think of Amazon. Each product has an image, details of the book’s contents, further information from the publishers and reviews from readers all in one place. No information from the publisher? Guess what, you can’t build up the complete picture of what you might be buying. No reviews from the readers? Again you are not sure about things because you can’t complete the information you need to create that overall view of things.

3. Involvement: We need to be involved in order to help us get everything. High Street stores do this by allowing us to pick things up and touch them, feel them, absorb their qualities. Even if a shop doesn’t let us do that, like Argos, we get involved – there is actually no real need to pick up a little pen and fill in a tiny slip of paper and then take it to the counter, but it is involvement. Online, we like to be involved so we can feel part of the process. Once again, Amazon gets this – we can review books, create our own wish lists and so on. None of that is directly necessary in book purchasing, but it helps us feel involved and that aids the Gestalt process of completing the big picture.

So on your web site if you are selling stuff you need to consider these principles. How easy is your web site to understand and to use? How informative is your product information? How much involvement do your buyers get?  If you can move towards ensuring your online shop is easy to use, is highly informative and has good levels of involvement you will find that people can more easily get the big picture about what you sell. And once they get that they are much more likely to buy. In the same way, if you see the Dalmatian dog, the picture is a complete whole that is easy to deal with; if you only see black splodges you get confused and stop looking. Don’t let your online shop be an array of black splodges.

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