Five psychological reasons why the M&S new website has problems

Marks and Spencer has reported falling sales – again – and the website has underperformed too

For decades M&S was THE place to go shopping in Britain. It was the darling of the High Street, until it started falling behind a decade ago amidst competition from the growing supermarkets and a new bunch of clothing retailers who were able to respond more quickly to customer requirements. The company brought in a new Chief Executive, Stuart Rose who had a formidable record in High Street retailing and he made several changes to M&S helping to re-establish it at the top of the tree, before he left in 2011.

But in the past three years the M&S star has not shone brightly. Quarter after quarter it has reported more disappointing sales and the latest results show that even its hope for rescue, a new website, was also failing to deliver.

Marks and Spencer Website Screen Shot

So what is wrong with the M&S website? It has had a fall in sales of 8% whereas the online retail sector as a whole has been celebrating sales increases of 20% or more this year. So what has M&S done wrong in spite of having spent £150m on it – yes £150m – already…!

1. It is not “me”

Online, people take fractions of seconds to decide whether or not they are “in the right place”. If the web page they land on does not match their perceptions of what they are like and what they want, then the visitors head off somewhere else. Traditional retailers are used to people taking minutes to make decisions in a bricks and mortar store. Online the decisions are made within a second – two or three if you are lucky.  So when an M&S shopper lands on their new website they expect to see that they are in the right place with imagery that says “hello you M&S shopper”. Nowadays, the average age of an M&S retail store shopper is 49 years old. So landing on a website they expect to see people like them. But what do they see when they land on the new M&S site? Yes, young lovelies — people 20 years younger than the average age of an M&S shopper. In less than a blink of an eye those M&S shoppers have clicked away, assuming they are on the wrong site.

2. It’s not M&S

One of the things that people instantly recognise in a brand is its use of colour and font. Indeed, some companies are so hung up on this essential component of branding that they have internal “brand police” preventing anyone from using an incorrect font or even just an approximation of colours. Go into an M&S High Street store and you are faced with greens, yellows and striking sans serif fonts. Visit their website and what do you see? No greens and yellows and a completely different font to what you are used to in their High Street stores or on their packaging. Even if a website visitor thinks that they could be on the right site because they want to think they are younger than they really are, there will be cognitive dissonance because the online branding does not seem to match the offline branding. Visitors could think again they are not in the right place and will click away as a result.

3. It’s the wrong country

In spite of the global nature of the web, people are still more interested in shopping locally. They want to shop from a UK site if they are in the UK. They want to shop from an Australian site if they are down under. But land on and what do you see as a bold message on the top? It clearly explains that you can get free shipping in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada. The heartland of Marks and Spencer is the UK and so British visitors will immediately think they are on the wrong site.  Confusing people with bold messages is a significant reason for lost traffic on the web.

4. It’s complicated

Online, people are used to seeing details in an instant. Take Amazon’s shop, for instance. You click on a product and you see all the details, the price, the size options, whether or not it is in stock and the review status all in one place. On the new M&S site you have to make several clicks (I counted seven clicks for one pair of jeans) in order to find out the information you need. Indeed, it is several clicks on each product before you know whether or not it is in stock. As a result the site is cumbersome and time consuming to use. One of the key psychological requirements of a good e-commerce site is subconsciously appealing to a survival instinct of doing things with the least amount of effort – convenience. This new site does not seem to achieve that.

5. It’s not Internet

Just like many other traditional retailers, M&S is frantically trying to recreate a High Street store online. Internet shoppers do it differently. The world’s leading fashion retailer online – vastly outstripping M&S – is Asos. And even though their front pages takes you to the two key departments – men or women’s fashion – the rest of the front page emphasises content. It takes you to the Asos magazine, for instance, where visitors can read about fashion. It takes you to shared images from fellow shoppers, sharing content socially using hashtags. You cannot mistake the Asos site for being web-focused, knowing that online people want to do more than shop – they want to consume content and share content. The shopping is almost a by-product of this. But go to the new M&S website and the content isn’t obvious at all, and often just an excuse to take you to a product image. Click on the “news” and there is no news to read, just a page full of products. You have to scroll through to find an article about Ben Miller. Several more clicks and a bit of hunting around menus and you can kind some recipes. But where is the interaction? The one thing that shoppers expect online is interactivity. You can add a review – which take several clicks to get to anyway – but that’s about all. It is as though M&S hasn’t realised the Internet has moved on in the past few years. Visitor expectation is now very different to what it was just two years ago.

So, five important reasons which have a subconscious impact on people that are to do with basic instincts and our need for instant recognition and understanding. Combine them with what appears to be a website trying to be a real world shop and is it any wonder that M&S is in trouble?

What do they need to put it right? Actually it probably isn’t the website that’s the issue. It could well be attitude. It is about realising that the way the web works, the way web visitors shop and the things they focus on are vastly different to what M&S is used to in its real world existence. If M&S wants its website to truly succeed, they need to set aside almost everything they know about retailing and focus instead on understanding online customers; they behave very differently. M&S needs to stop thinking like retailers. Do that and their website will succeed.

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