Why does America make such a Mess of Gathering an Address?

The US invented ecommerce and leads the world in e-retail innovation. So why does America make such a mess of gathering customer addresses?

Everything about ecommerce is measurable. Every part of every process can be analysed, discussed and – hopefully – continually improved. Reams of web pages and thousands of words are devoted weekly to how best to carry out this incremental optimisation.

Reducing shopping cart abandonment attracts a lot of that effort, and no wonder. Depending which study you care to read, cart abandonment rates run around 60–70 per cent and that rises significantly when it comes to m-commerce. That’s a lot of sales to wave goodbye to.

The checkout process is often labeled as the prime culprit. Potential buyers recoil from the multi-step, multi-page registration they have to endure to simply make a purchase – and click elsewhere. Pre-checked tick boxes for newsletter sign-up irritate some. Being forced to sign up for an account rather than being offered a guest checkout turns others off.

But what about the elephant in the room?

I’m talking about collecting a customer address, the most vital piece of ecommerce information besides name, email and credit card details. Without the right address, it’s impossible to deliver a product. And accuracy is vital: how much does an undeliverable package cost you?

A postal address helps flesh out customer records in myriad other ways, from finding a credit rating to segmentation via geodemographic codes. You need an address to send a mailshot, to map customer locations or to reliably clean your database against homemover and deceased files.

So why do American e-retailers make it so hard to enter an address correctly, often filling the database with garbage and turning away potential buyers? The answer? Post-validation.

Post-validation simply means comparing the entered address to a reference file like the USPS’s DSF2 to check that it’s valid. Of course, the customer has to enter the address before the site can check its validity, making it a time-consuming affair.

Of Internet Retailer’s Top 100 ecommerce sites, 86 use some form of post-validation to check the address entered though most of these only checked the address at State level. The remaining 14 were happy to let through customers enter any data they liked.

 But what happens if the entered address doesn’t pass muster?

Some of the Top 100, such as Amazon, offer the customer a list of valid alternative addresses to choose from. But they also allow them to revert to the original address they entered and carry on with the transaction – so accepting an unformatted, possibly undeliverable address.

Far from ideal, but there’s worse out there: 12 per cent of the sites in a survey by Baymard would not allow customers to complete the checkout process without entering a valid address.

I can’t think of a more effective way to tell the customer that you don’t value their business. They try to fill out a web form with what they are sure is the correct personal information, yet pressing the submit button keeps dumping them back to a red-annotated, incomplete form.

So ecommerce sites are caught on the horns of a dilemma:  do they risk losing a sale by refusing to let the buyer enter an invalid address? Or do they throw up their hands and simply let customers enter whatever they like, and so potentially end up with an undeliverable address?

There is no right answer, and that’s because post-validation is an outdated, inherently-flawed way to collect addresses. Letting customers enter any old address they like and only then telling them if it’s wrong is lengthy, error-prone and customer-hostile. More than likely to result in a poorly-formatted, possibly undeliverable address, it can also appear to scold the customer, accusing them of entering false information. No wonder so many of them give up at the registration page.

Thankfully, there is an alternative

It’s called pre-validation and is the standard way to gather addresses in countries like the UK. Simply ask for a customer’s postal code, then let them choose their full address from a drop-down list. The back-end software then populates (auto-fills) the form for the customer to approve.

A much faster process, pre-validation actively supports customers by helping them enter a completely accurate, fully-formatted deliverable address.

Bodenusa.com is one of the few ecommerce outfits to use this method in the USA. Buyers enter their street number, house name and Zip code, then choose from a list of suggested USPS-compliant addresses.

Simple enough, but you might have noticed that wasn’t quite as straightforward as the UK example. The extra street and house name data is needed because the Zip coding system operates up at city and state level, while the UK’s 1.8 million postcodes each cover a much smaller area, with only a handful of addresses or a single large delivery point like a factory in each one.

The US does have the more accurate Zip+4 code whose four extra digits identify smaller delivery zones like city blocks or office buildings. But because only the basic five-digit Zip is mandatory, that’s all that anyone ever remembers to quote for their address.

The very latest generation of rapid addressing tools offer a simple way to pre-validate these more complex US addresses. Postcode Anywhere’s Capture+ is a great example, employing interactive Google Instant-style search technology that displays possible addresses in real time as the customer enters their data.

Because it constantly updates the results with every keystroke, customers can click on their address as soon as it appears. Just like Google Instant, the desired address usually materializes before they’ve finished typing so entering all the data is rarely necessary.

It’s a world away from clumsy, frustrating post-validation. Just start typing your business name, street or zip code, then select the right address from the search results. You can try it in action over here.

American retailers have lost enough business already by using slow, outdated, inaccurate and downright intimidating address capture techniques. Why repel customers and shovel dirty data into the database? Matching the innovation shown in the rest of ecommerce, the latest rapid addressing technology gives customers an easy ride through the registration process, reduces cart abandonment and increases data quality. The difference is certainly measurable.