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12 approaches that work –

Delivering convenience, speed, personalisation and ease of use are vital if sites are to find favour with customers, says Penelope Ody

    1. Offer local support

It can sometimes be difficult for multinational shoppers to be fully aware of the home country of the site they’re visiting – especially for smaller specialist ones – so it can come as a surprise to discover that the apparently French or German language site is actually headquartered in, for example, the UK or Spain. For the leading brands in the Top500, it is generally obvious, and even those with a limited real-world presence provide local support. Swedish hardware retailer Clas Ohlson, for example, only has six stores in England but its website provides a London telephone number for customer calls.

Next provides a mix of UK numbers for local call centres on its various websites that are generally related to language and time zone. The French site, for example, has a local number and so do Hong Kong and Australia, but the Netherlands must call the UK, as must customers in Gibraltar. H&M has local numbers for each site – or provides a list giving a choice or local number by country where the same site is used for a number of countries with similar geography and language – as with the Baltic states.

    1. Flaunt your languages…

That little national flag at the top right hand corner of the landing page has become a readily understood symbol for multilingual websites. Click on the Union flag on Next’s site and you have a pull-down menu offering around 75 countries – although not quite so many languages. Only French or English for Belgium, German or English for Switzerland or Spanish or English for Spain, for example. While this may disappoint the Flemings and Catalans, at least most countries in Europe have the relevant language, as do those in the Middle East and China.

Not everyone takes the little flag approach. Land on H&M for the first time and you’re presented with a pop-up window of 60-plus countries. Languages are clearly indicated – including relevant choices for Belgium and Switzerland – although for some reason, the Luxembourg site is only in English.

Either approach is obvious for customers and quick to access and easy to use, although not every site adopts a similar approach. Oasis puts its little flag at the very bottom of the page, while Ikea puts ‘change country’ there, although when clicked, the resulting window provides a comprehensive list of countries and languages that is easy to access.

Even if the options are rather more limited, it is still important to make them perfectly obvious. Click on the little flag on the El Corte Inglés site and the result is a pop-up window with the choice of Spain, UK, France, Portugal or ‘other countries’. Language choices are also given but if you’re in ‘other countries’, it’s English only. At least would-be shoppers are forewarned.

    1. …and make it clear to whom you sell

Discovering at the checkout that the site will not supply to your country is a frustrating experience for cross-border customers. H&M makes it perfectly obvious from the start. That initial pop-up window offering a choice of countries and languages also puts a little carrier bag symbol next to their names to indicate whether or not online shopping is available. If it is not, then the relevant site will still price in the local currency (although not necessary the language) as well as provide styling information and access to the H&M online magazine, and – where relevant – a store directory.

As a marketplace, NotOnTheHighStreet sells items from a great many individual suppliers, so here delivery information is included on every product page. Again, this makes prices and lead times easily accessible as well as highlighting which goods cannot be supplied cross-border.

    1. Be generous about returns…

EU law states that retailers need to offer at least 14 days from receipt for goods to be returned and many European sites, notably in France, Denmark and Poland, opt for this minimum. Others are more generous: Clas Ohlson gives shoppers 90 days for most goods, while El Corte Inglés allows 60 days for fashion and sports clothing, accessories, footwear, household items and textiles but 15 or 30 for other items depending on brand and product group. Ikea has a “365 days to change your mind” policy. Even if the item has been assembled, as long as it is still saleable, Ikea will take it back. Even mattresses come with a 90-day “love it or exchange it” option, including collection and delivery of the replacement mattress free-of-charge.

    1. …and local solutions

Since many shoppers check on returns policy – regardless of whether it is a home or cross-border site – before buying, taking a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best way to encourage international trade. Next’s various national sites all instruct returns to be sent to its Bradford warehouse, with shoppers paying the postage regardless of whether they’re in Brazil, Bulgaria or Birmingham. Asos’s terms vary depending on geography, with many returns free of charge trough identified local carriers. French shoppers, for example have a choice of free returns via Mondial Relay, UPS or Colissmo, Czech customers have a free return via the local post while Australian ones can choose a free return via Australia Post or Parcel Point, or pay for collection from Couriers Please.

    1. Keep it simple…

Among the more frustrating aspects of online shopping is entering an apparently obvious search term only to be faced with a bewildering choice or a list of totally inappropriate suggestions. Enter “coat” at Bonmarché and it helpfully not only offers you links to its general coat selection but also – in a chilly February – to a group on a special “wrap up warm” page, with another subgroup of “quilted coats” plus links to style guides, although judging by the dates on some (October 2016) they may not all feature current merchandise.

Others take a less structured approach. The same exercise at Matalan simply brings up a page of 24 assorted coats and jackets, while Marks & Spencer offers a list headed by coats in kids’, women’s or men’s, followed by a more eclectic group which includes “coatigan” and “pink coat”. Click on “coats for women” and you have 57 styles to scroll through. “Coat” at H&M gives you a list of “coats, coated jeans, coated leggings and coats ladies” to choose from, while at Oasis you get links for “coats” plus a list of individual styles, presumably current top sellers or those the company is eager to plug. Next presents a lengthy list of subgroups including ladies coats, boys coats, mac coats, waist coats and coat hooks.

Many search engines learn as they go along to hone the selection, others remember recent related search terms and suggest those. Some, obviously, simply go for anything that mentions the entered word. However your search engine works, some rules-based instructions or manual intervention may be needed to ensure relevance.

7…and add some filtering

Even better, leave it to the customer. According to analysis for the IREU Brand Index, adding filters to the search function is increasing in popularity across Europe. Use of search filters for product type, brand and price increased by 25, 12 and 10 percentage points respectively between 2017 and 2018. Rather than allowing the customer to enter a term in a search box, Superdry offers a list of product category click-throughs on the left hand side of the home page – having first asked visitors to opt for men’s or women’s clothing on the landing page. The women’s “outerwear” list includes “jackets and coats” but also several subgroups including “leather jackets” and “windcheater”. Click through to “jackets and coats” and new lists offer filters by product type, size and colour, so with a few ticks you’re down to a manageable, and easily adjusted, list of five or six products.

Such techniques make it quick and easy for shoppers to find the items they’re looking for, without the need to scroll through dozens of images of potentially irrelevant items.

    1. Get personal

For many of today’s customers, personalisation is key. Whether that is a precisely targeted offer, an exclusive loyalty benefit, individualised products, or cosmetics selected in response to a detailed questionnaire about their skin or hair type, shoppers want to feel that it is something specially designed for them. According to a survey of 18,430 consumers last year by KPMG, exclusive member offers, customised promotions and customer recognition across channels were among the top ten drivers of customer loyalty, with millennials the most likely to value these last two attributes. Many of the Top500 understand the importance of exclusivity and personalisation. Among them is The Perfume Shop, which will engrave perfume bottles with the recipient’s name or initials, while joining myJohnLewis gives members invitations to exclusive shopping events as well as early access to sale merchandise. Many of 5,000+ small businesses on’s marketplace are obvious enthusiasts for personalisation and happy to create anything from bread boards to story books and bottles of Prosecco, all individualised in some way.

    1. Watch your speed

Today’s customers can be demanding and intolerant of poor performance. If a page takes too long to load, the odds are they’ll click onto another site rather than wait. Studies suggest a direct correlation between load time and abandonment. Head past 4 seconds and the chances are one-in-four would-be shoppers will go elsewhere. IR’s researchers found many EU websites well in excess of this, with some Austrian sites taking 9.4 seconds to load completely and Germany and the UK not far behind. Optimised mobile sites were rather faster – between 6 and 9 seconds depending on geography – but these depend as much on data network capability as page size. When testing your site, remember that not all your customers will have the latest equipment or the fastest broadband, then manage page sizes accordingly.

    1. Expand contact options

Different customers like to contact you in different – and not always obvious – ways. Millennials in particular appear to prefer text or online chat to actually talking to real people, so a good choice of communication options becomes ever more important. Top500 retailers are active on most of the social media channels – almost all use Facebook and Twitter – and most provide a telephone number and email address, although it isn’t always obvious.

Polish retailer Empik, for example, uses Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and Pinterest and also provides a 24-hour contact telephone number clearly displayed at the foot of the landing page, yet it has no email address for customer services. Majestic Wine gives an 0345 number in the top right hand corner of its landing page and provides a similar list of social media links as well as live chat. It also has an “online customer happiness team” with UK and international phone numbers, email and postal address and there are links to local stores with direct dial telephone numbers, emails and individual Facebook and Twitter accounts. New Look provides freephone or local call numbers for European shoppers and assures customers that it will respond to Twitter or Facebook queries within the hour. There is also an email form promising a response within 48 hours, while live chat pops up if you linger too long on any page.

RTV Euro AGD takes a rather novel approach to communication channels. Along with the usual logos for Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, it also includes a click-through for sign language, which brings up a live chat connection with signing.

    1. Deliver convenience

Today’s shoppers expect retailers to offer the sort of fulfilment options that meet their needs: a choice of delivery days, easy returns, rapid refunds and, importantly, a range of collection options. Click and collect is a standard offering for omnichannel retailers these days and most Top500 retailers clearly declare their options on the landing page. has introduced a same-day collection services (for €2.49) where orders placed before 12noon can be picked up from Albert Heijn branches from 5pm.

Pureplays, too, are offering collection. Very, for example, offers free collection with Collect+ allowing customers to collect their orders from various local convenience stores including branches of Tesco Express. Those with a small retail footprint also use similar schemes. Size has fewer than 40 outlets but offers click and collect from 500 stores. Using the various parcel shops or direct deals with other retail chains can significantly improve customer convenience.

    1. Make it easy to give feedback

More than half of the Top500 encourage customers to leave product ratings and reviews with many encouraging feedback on specific parameters. Fat Face, for example, asks customers to confirm if the item was “true to size” as well as asking customers to give their age group. This is useful feedback for any retailer wanting to understand its customer mix. Office, too, asks for comments on fit and, as with many other sites, asks customer whether they would recommend the product or not. Dunelm asks shoppers to rate quality, value and appearance, which contribute to the overall star rating, and also asks them to provide information about the room where the item is being used. John Lewis allows shoppers to record Facebook Likes for products as well as rate them by relevant characteristics such as value, quality and instructions for electrical goods and equipment. Argos takes a similar approach, asking for ratings on sound and picture quality for TVs, but is it really helpful to provide 400 or more reviews for a product? Perhaps some pruning after six months or a year would not come amiss.

Negative reviews are just as valuable. Not only can they help avoid returns by giving feedback on sizing issues or other problems, but they also help provide credibility to the entire process. Everything rated five stars and “perfect” will make even the least cynical shopper slightly suspicious.

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