Can Today's Checkout Page Be Done With Half As Many Fields?

With relatively few changes, chains have been using the same online checkout since shortly after e-commerce emerged. With an eye on seeing if the number of lines could be sharply reduced from today's average of 30 checkout fields, a pair of Silicon Valley firms has proposed a way to cut that down to 13. Many of the suggestions are annoyingly logical.

For example, why ask for the house number and then the street and then the municipality and then the state and then the ZIP Code and then the country? By reversing it and asking for the ZIP Code first, the state, country and municipality could autopopulate. In theory, that's a shopper savings of three lines. Why ask for first and last names in two fields when one field could just ask for Name? Why ask if the shopper wants to register, login or checkout before seeking their E-mail address? If you ask for E-mail first, you can autopopulate many of those fields based on that address' history. And why ask for country when an IP address can autopopulate where the shopper is based? Why ask what kind of payment card they'll be using and then ask for the number, when the reverse sequence will save another field (as the number will indicate the kind of card).

The firms—a Palo Alto retail consulting firm called Shanth and a Berkeley product design company called Anatta Design—proposed other changes intended to make the process either faster or easier. Once the country has been determined (through IP address or via the shopper overriding the IP address and choosing the country from a pulldown, such as if the shopper is traveling), the phone number should auto-format for that country.

In a move that a handful of sites have already deployed, they suggest reversing the billing and shipping sequence. By asking the shipping details first—before seeking payment details—the price can be updated in time for the shopper to decide they no longer want the item, said Prashanth Mysoor, Founder and Chairman of Shanth.

Some sites—based on a model that was common in the earliest days of e-commerce—believe that shoppers will be more hesitant to abandon a purchase after they have inputted their payment card details, fearing that they may be charged anyway. Today, though, most shoppers—especially younger ones—have no such fears. In short, if the high shipping charges are going to kill the sale, it will kill the sale no matter when it happens. But the chain will be left with completed forms that are tied with no completed transactions. Not good.

The two firms have also proposed a logical design change: everything in the checkout process should be in a single left-justified column. Not only will this make mobile interactions easier, but it simply makes it easier to not accidentally miss filling out a field. This is a real risk when the shopper is having to dart back and forth between two columns.

Another enhancement is instant feedback when a form is filled in incorrectly, said Nirav Sheth, founder and product manager Anatta Design. This is very different than current practice where an entire page has to be processed before the shopper is told that something, somewhere on the page, is a problem. If the shopper is lucky, some of today's pages will flag the problem field by marking it in red. Even then, the reason it's wrong is often left to the shopper's imagination.

What is especially impressive about the field reductions suggested by these two firms is not that the changes are extremely low-cost and non-disruptive. It's that the improvements have proven elusive for so long.

It's worth noting that both of these firms are small—Shanth has about 10 employees and Anatta has about 13—and it's exactly the kind of proposal that would have never come out of an Oracle or IBM. The changes make far too much sense and they don't cost $9 million to deploy.

In fairness, both firms are trying to sell packages to help retailers with analytics and reporting—so they can further customize these kinds of changes for their specific shoppers—but the free-for-all field reduction suggestions certainly seem worth considering.

Is the lack of change over the years simply a version of "that's the way we've always done it" thinking? If so, it's becoming ever easier to figure out why shoppers so often abandon their carts.