US retail ecommerce: what can we learn from the major players?

This month I’ve been taking a look at how some of the well-established US ecommerce sites handle online user experience and the tools/techniques they use to persuade people to part with hard earned cash. I chose four websites to review:

  • Zappos – a leading light in ecommerce and online customer service
  • Target – a huge multi-channel category killer
  • Walmart – another huge catalogue multi-channel retailer
  • Free People – a fashion house that has grown rapidly and has a strong focus on UX

Read on to find out what I think they’re doing well that UK ecommerce practitioners can learn from. Please note, I’m not saying UK retail sites don’t do any of this, simply highlighting examples of good execution from our US counterparts.

Clear value messaging

I’ve long admired the simplicity of how Zappos takes away potential purchase barriers with a clear ‘free shipping and returns’ message. Zappos has established a strong reputation for providing excellent customer service and support is clear from the moment you land on the website.


In the footer they display their core values, with the content changing each time you refresh the page or load a new page. This isn’t going to directly translate into revenue but it illustrates clarity of thought around incorporating brand value messaging into the overall content strategy.


Clear range presentation

Typically you’ll see drop down menus used to allow users to drill down into catalogue navigation options like ‘Shop by Department’ or ‘Shop by Brand’. It’s a well known UI pattern for ecommerce but it doesn’t instantly communicate the product range available. Target has a different UX design, displaying the top-level departments alongside the primary content zone. I think this is a visually clean and effective way of making it clear what you can buy online, probably more useful for new visitors who are unlikely to know the brand well enough to implicitly understand everything they sell.


Geo-targeted offers

Geo-location and geo-marketing are typically associated with mobile, for example using geofences or beacons to send local marketing messages to users via apps. I’ve rarely seen desktop sites allow users to narrow offers down based on their location but this is what Walmart does quite well.

The content behind this is simple; it’s a replication of store offers and coupons. What’s impressive is the effort that has gone into designing an intuitive online UX so that customers can access this content via any device.



There’s a neat UI design for the coupons on the desktop site. You can clip as many as you like and print to redeem in-store. You can also share the coupons socially or via email. It’s a positive way to support offline sales by letting customers access all available coupons and offers.


Unfortunately it’s not quite as usable on mobile. Whilst the mobile page is optimised for smaller screens and uses best practice techniques like large hit areas for buttons, there’s no evidence of the tabs from the desktop site for rollbacks and coupons. It’s an obvious customer benefit to provide digital coupons that can be stored on the mobile device for redemption at till point and I’d expect mobile shoppers to be more active in hunting out coupons.

Stunning high definition photography

With continuous improvements in screen technology, design teams need to produce higher quality images. High definition images scale well, low quality images pixelate and become blurry. There’s a technical art to ensuring the most appropriate resolution image is served based on device capability and connection type. I’m a long time fan of Free People; they produce beautiful photography shot in high quality. I’ve not seen a blurred or pixelated image (caveat – I’ve not tested extensively on every available device).


Building content through your community

Free People introduced the FP Me Community to give customers a forum for sharing their style looks. Each product page features photos of the product being worn by real customers, an excellent form of social proof that extends the message that Free People is a place for people passionate about fashion. Users have to be signed in to upload, so it also helps drive account registration and fuel the data pipeline.

With my product merchandising hat on, this is a great way to rapidly scale product photography without having to increase your internal budget. Free People gets free photography and a variety of shots that it couldn’t replicate itself because the cost would be prohibitive. It’s getting this value because it has provided something that users want and made it enjoyable to be part of the community.


Social content sharing is better suited to lifestyle fashion retailers like Free People (not sure how many Walmart customers would upload photos of themselves putting on new bed sheets) and brands like ASOS have done really well developing community features online (see #AsSeenOnMe).

Comments and questions

Which US retailers do you think do ecommerce well and deliver a high quality UX across devices?

I’d welcome your comments, questions and suggestions. Please share this blog with anyone who you think would find it interesting/have something to add.