The Age of Impulse

You may not be the next Groupon, but that shouldn’t discourage you from learning from their successes and incorporating them into your business.

I’m sure you’ve noticed this too. Emails, to-do lists, schedules, appointments, and random thoughts coming at you from all angles all day long. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the information age, where our work-lives and life-lives blend into an ever-present mess that makes the thought of ever getting ahead of things a hilarious, dark fantasy.

This brave and sick new world has given a new focus to e-commerce, perhaps even resulted in a new form of it. And if you’re in the business of selling things, you ought to be doing all you can to capitalize on this new environment.

eBay was probably the start of it all–a commerce sphere that used fixed deadlines to drive up demand, which of course lead to some pretty inflated prices (full disclosure: I once sold a $30 poster for $1100 on the thing). But the idea that anyone would have seven days to wait around to purchase an item seems quaint these days. And you can see that transformation in eBay itself, which has seen a huge drop-off in auctions and transitioned to more of a “buy it now” environment. I’ve noticed this a lot myself with eBay, where auction items get added to my watch list and never thought of again. When the time comes for that last-minute frenzied bidding, I’m long-gone and onto another obsession.

And it’s not just me. This new mindset leaves no room for delay–it’s either here and now or it’s dead and gone. The internet is a vast environment with more variety than is humanly comprehensible. And if you’re fortunate enough to grab a potential buyer’s attention, you better make sure that the act of purchase is fast, simple, and can’t be put off.

Deal-a-day websites like Groupon have revolutionized direct marketing and impulse sales, but they’re not the only ones reshaping commerce to fit today’s new micro-attention spans. Looking back at my recent purchases they’ve all been impulse buys: a direct email from a band I love about their new LP (with special perks for pre-ordering), a plant that hangs upside-down and doesn’t need watering from Fab.com (a design-centric deal-a-day site that I highly recommend), a t-shirt that a friend sent me via IM during the workday, a bottle opener found through svpply.com, and a J Crew shirt that I could have driven to to the suburbs to buy but found as a buy it now on eBay for 60% or so of the price. All of these were instant, impulse buys; things that came into my field of vision for a moment that I acted on before they could get away.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not Groupon or some other company that’s mastered direct-marketed impulse sales. Never fear, there’s still plenty you can do to tailor your traditional e-commerce site for this new environment.

Create Special Offers for Your Fans

By now you’re hopefully collecting email addresses through your website, followers on twitter, and fans on Facebook. Don’t just bombard those supporters with blanket advertisement. Reward them and give them an incentive to stay connected to your company. Create special limited-time deals and packages that are only available to your fans. Send them promo codes for discounts on their orders this week. Give them a reason to stay connected to you, and a reason to buy again from you now.

Invest in a User-Friendly Catalog

There’s been a ton of focus in the last few years on SEO and driving traffic to your site, but not a lot of focus on making e-commerce catalogs more user-friendly (more of my thoughts on this here). Be sure that users are presented with a clear, well-organized catalog that gives them the tools they need to make an informed purchase without ever seeing your products first-hand. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stumbled upon a poorly-built site for something and used its product details to look up better specs, images, and even prices from another source.

Design for Mobile

Every year an increasing amount of web traffic comes through mobile devices. In fact, mobile usage is slated to overtake desktop usage by 2014. Don’t be left behind in this trend. If you’re relying on web sales as a substantial part of your business, you need to be thinking mobile. Mobile internet allows your business access to people’s commuting time, couch time, work time, and yes even their bathroom time. And to truly capitalize on the mobile environment, you need a dedicated mobile site designed to be simple and easy for your customers’ little sausage fingers to navigate on those tiny screens.

Simplify Forms

I know you want to capture data, but is my middle initial really a required field? Users who make it to your payment screen want to give you their money. Let them do it as simply as possible. Capture only what you need to make the transaction and don’t get greedy trying to capture every bit of data you can. An abandoned cart is a sad cart.

Include a Paypal Option

To that end, allow payment through Paypal. It’s just so much easier than your typical Visa or Mastercard option. No one wants to enter all their shipping and billing information for every transaction they make online. Much less the sites that require registration as a step in the purchase process. That’s just what we need: another username and password to remember. Payment with Paypal eliminates about 80% of the traditional checkout process. Log in, click OK, and you’re done.

See, tailoring your e-commerce site for impulse buying isn’t all that difficult. You may not be the next Groupon, but that shouldn’t discourage you from learning from the successes of that model and incorporating them into your business.

Just think: you could be selling to me right now (and I’m in a restaurant in Brooklyn eating potato chips).