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Money spent on Web-site design an investment in winning buyers' trust

Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor


Tiffany Barnett
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Instead of posting security statements to reassure consumers, online retailers might want to spend money on good Web-site design, three researchers say. “Instead of serving a purely aesthetic function, Web-site design signals that a firm’s ability can be trusted,” the authors, including UI marketing professor Tiffany Barnett White (pictured), wrote in the Journal of Marketing.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With consumers growing wary of buying online, how can a company best win over customers and clinch sales on the Web?

The most common method used by online retailers is to post privacy and security statements that convey a firm’s good intentions, according to Tiffany Barnett White, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But good intentions are not enough for today’s skeptical consumer.

The results of four tests of between 79 and 152 people, mostly undergraduate students, conducted by White and two other researchers, suggest that spending money on good Web-site design was a more effective way to build consumer trust.

“Instead of serving a purely aesthetic function, Web-site design signals that a firm’s ability can be trusted,” the researchers wrote in an article in the Journal of Marketing, a publication of the American Marketing Association.

Such trust in a firm’s ability to deliver was “the most significant driver of online purchase intentions for visitors engaging in pre-purchase deliberation,” or what the researchers called “searchers.”

However, improved site design did not significantly increase purchases in the case of “browsers,” or those who viewed a site for recreation or enjoyment.

The study reflects a conundrum among online retailers.

Rather than gaining consumer confidence over time, online sites have suffered from growing caution among buyers.

Not only do consumers balk at buying goods without actually seeing or touching them, but many are aware that established retailers frequently outsource their e-commerce functions, making it difficult to predict the quality of an online product based on the customer’s in-store experience with the firm.

Another factor affecting Web sales is what the researchers called “social risk.” For online retailers selling expensive items, such as jewelry, or gifts for important social occasions, such as weddings, sophisticated graphics and easy site navigation are important sales tools.

On the other hand, sites that sell commodity-like products, such as office supplies, can do without costly Web-site investments.

The paper was co-written with Ann E. Schlosser, a marketing professor at the University of Washington, and Susan M. Lloyd, a marketing professor at American University.

The article is titled, “Converting Web Site Visitors into Buyers: How Web Site Investment Increases Consumer Trusting Beliefs and Online Purchase Intentions.”