The Roles Within Commerce

Essays in this ecommerce series:

A commerce transaction is a communicative transaction; that is, if two parties engage in a commercial transaction — buying and selling something — then that event is actually based not solely on the exchange of goods but also on linguistic and social role-playing. Commerce is governed by social rules (in any culture, a seller follows certain rules of behavior that are different from the buyer’s rules of behavior), and by linguistic rules (certain words, gestures and tones have meanings specific to a discussion about buying something).

A commerce transaction has two roles: seller and buyer. Each of these roles has its own agenda, but the logical assumption of a commerce transaction is that both parties want to cooperate to find a mutually acceptable solution. Each of these roles has a set of beliefs and expectations about its own purpose and agenda in a transaction, as well as beliefs and expectations about the other role’s, well, role.

Both buyer and seller roles have “comfort zones” built into the relationship based on their expectations and experience: perhaps the buyer believes that s/he can trust a car dealer only so far, or perhaps a merchant will extend credit to people whom s/he knows are from the neighborhood; these roles allow for some relaxation or flexibility of the rules they use to govern their participation in the transaction. This flexibility can be exploited by dishonest participants, but should one of the parties have reason to doubt this search for a mutually acceptable outcome, the entire commerce transaction becomes more difficult and may fall apart in distrust.

Online commerce is still new enough that participants are still trying to get a handle on how the rules of commercial interaction apply to this new medium. The burden of smoothing the transition to online commerce falls to the creators and owners of ecommerce sites, because when a commercial transaction falters through misunderstanding or distrust, a typical buyer-to-be won’t spend any effort analyzing the contradictory message cues or violated role-playing expectations. When a potential customer is frustrated, s/he will exit; the merchant has the investment in fostering the relationship, and so had better understand the mechanics of the relationship, starting with the roles.

The Buyer

From The Point-of-View of the Buyer

Buyers expect three important actions from a typical transaction: they want to make the decision to purchase something, they want to effect payment for this something, and they want to assume ownership of what they purchased. Anything that interferes with these three actions is going to bother the buyer.

The first action, making the decision to buy, has some implicit hurdles. The buyer must find what they want, evaluate their budget, evaluate their trust of the merchant, etc. The buyer weighs a lot of factors and faces a basic fact of inertia that it is often easier to not buy than it is to buy; some merchants make the buying process absurdly difficult with such design decisions as forcing the user to register and log in before accessing the shopping cart function or requiring a specific browser for buying from their site. After all, the buyer expects to give their personal information, if they give it at all, when they pay, not when they’re just shopping. When was the last time that you had to give your name when you walked into a store?

Buyers don’t want to buy without knowing they have bought. Buyers face some violations of the decision to buy from “slammers” and the illegal use of credit cards. Making it too easy for a buyer to purchase from your site — for example through an “express lane” commerce track — may backfire if the buyer thinks they have been tricked into the purchase.

Buyers also consider themselves as having entered into a tacit contract with the merchant: when the buyer decides to buy something, s/he does so with an expectation about the availability of the something. Merchants declare the availability of their products, “available right now for immediate shipping” or “this will ship out in 5 days”, and the buyer uses that availability in their process for deciding to buy. If the availability promised by the merchant proves false, the buyer will re-evaluate their decision to buy, even if they have already entered the ordering process.

The second action, the payment, has some explicit trouble spots. The buyer needs feedback from the process that payment has been correctly made; the buyer needs to know that the totals are correct, that their credit card (for the sake of argument, consider this the predominant payment method) has been correctly charged, that the transaction is secure, and that they are protected in case something goes wrong with the transaction. If the user receives ambiguous feedback during this payment phase, they will be frustrated and worried, and will experience doubt towards every aspect of the transaction. This is such a simple milestone for the buyer, the payment phase, but online there is little reassuring feedback. In person, the buyer can confirm with a salesperson, online they have at best error messages and an email address for “customer service”.

The third action, assuming ownership, is especially full of frustration for the buyer, because s/he has committed to the purchase — they’ve already paid — and now they are at the mercy of the merchant for the delivery of their purchase. Up until they receive the order, buyers want to know the status of the order; providing useful order status information should be a requirement for any ecommerce site, but few sites display this information in ways that are useful for the buyer. I would suggest that most buyers want to know what has been paid for, how much has been paid, when the order (or separate items on the order) will be shipped, and when the order will be delivered.

If the merchant fails to meet the buyers expectations — whether the expectations are fair or accurate — the buyer will be dissatisfied. Delayed orders face the possibility of cancellation.

Most users understand that they have responsibilities when they become buyers, and most seem willing to forgive a great deal of shaky commerce systems and rough shopping experiences to buy online. The issue here, though, is that users shouldn’t have to endure uncomfortable experiences to buy online, and it is up to ecommerce merchants smooth out the rough edges of the user experience.

From The Point-of-View of the Seller

The larger ecommerce web sites tend to treat individual buyers as statistics; individual users are difficult to deal with when the bottom line is the bottom line. Sales count as indications of trends: more click-throughs, more page hits, more traffic all mean more revenue. Pleasing the individual user is usually not a priority. Getting the users to recognize the site’s branding is a priority, however, because the assumption is that exposure will translate to patronage.

Most commerce sites don’t seem to be designed for any typical user; these sites haven’t built sample user profiles and then optimized site behavior for the expected behavior of these users. As online competition matures, though, we should see more sites carefully targeting their niche audiences.

My guess is that ecommerce sites can’t get a handle on the shear heterogeneity of the web’s client-server interaction. So many browsers and platform combinations exist that no single system is going to accommodate every possible user, so ecommerce strategists have been allowed to think in terms of sectors of users and specific audiences. The truth, though, is that selective targeting is actually selective exclusion, based not on the audience’s ability to be purchasers but on the ecommerce site’s ability to scale its infrastructure and technological support.

The Seller

From The Point-of-View of the Buyer

Online, the basic operative metaphor for ecommerce sites is that of the “store”, based on experience gained shopping in the real world. Ecommerce ventures can be grouped into sites of companies that exist primarily on the internet, and those that have real-world “brick-and-mortar” stores that have opened up sites (channels) on the internet. The attitudes users display towards these different categories of stores seem inconsistent at best.

From what I’ve read and experienced, I think that any company on the web, whatever their history separate from the web, is judged according to a set of values and priorities derived from the web culture. Especially hard hit are companies that have made their stores into destinations that foster community; for example, there is a huge gap between deciding to shop for a book online, and deciding to drive over to my local Borders Books and Music store. With all the emphasis placed on “community” by ecommerce sites, the term destination seems particularly irreconcilable with the fact of web sites as collections of documents and files; there is no meaningful there there, and that seems to hurt companies that have established themselves as destinations for shoppers.

Online shoppers seem to look for some of the following general characteristics when choosing between ecommerce merchants:

The perception of the cheapest price.
Numerous studies show that people comparison shop online for the cheapest price (see “A Note About the Article ‘Why People Shop on the Web’” below). What isn’t clear is if people factor in price inflators like shipping costs or handling fees, how extensive people are in their research, or how granular people are in their appraisal (for example, do people rely on a general perception that site X is usually the cheapest place for a particular category product, or if people always look for item-level comparisons). It is not clear whether buyers actually choose the lowest price.
The perception of fewer hassles.
The different commerce “engines” or applications accommodate user expectations with different degrees of success. Logically, those sites that provide the easiest user experience for finding products and purchasing products will be the most appealing to users; anything that frustrates users becomes not just a hassle but a barrier to deciding to purchase from the site.
The perception of trustworthiness.
A user must decide to trust an ecommerce site before making a purchase, and this decision is based on a perception and judgment of the site’s trustworthiness. While ecommerce sites can provide explicit cues about their trustworthiness, sites also provide implicit cues that affect the user’s perception of the site. Sites often say one thing — “trust me” — while simultaneously giving a message — for example, “I’m unprofessional” — that effectively undoes this first message.
The visibility of the site.
The user’s awareness of a site has an obvious effect on their potential to purchase from the site. Advertising, public relations, and media play all contribute to increase consumer awareness about a site, but none of these speaks to the quality or trustworthiness of the site. Brand is valuable, though, when the brand is recognizable as standing for qualities of the company, but the translation of real world brands to the web isn’t entirely understood yet.

A Note About the Article “Why People Shop on the Web”

Jakob Nielsen’s article Why People Shop on the Web discusses the results of a recent survey of Danish online shoppers.

The article presents answers to the question “What Information Do You Look For When Buying a Product on the Web?”:

  • 82% — Detailed information about the product itself
  • 62% — Price comparisons
  • 21% — Detailed information about the vendor

One of these data points as stated here — that only 21 percent of these queried users agrees that looking for “detailed information about the vendor” — is open to misinterpretation. The obvious conclusion is that users are shopping online, and not necessarily looking to purchase online, because so few seem interested in validating the trustworthiness or suitability of the merchant. I take this statistic to mean that few users are actively researching merchants; it is counterintuitive to assert that users are interested in product information and price comparison to the exclusion of concern about the commerce transaction.

From The Point-of-View of the Seller

The ecommerce site is out there on the web to make money. The goal is to generate always increasing traffic, so visibility is essential. Advertising, press releases, media exposure, partnerships — these all are tremendously important for creating and maintaining public awareness of the site. The critical concerns governing the decision making process become: will a proposed change drive traffic to the site, and will it interfere with the basic ability to purchase from the site?

The Other Players

There are other roles involved in the entire chain of events when a buyer makes a purchase form a seller — somebody may process the merchandise in the warehouse, somebody may ship the merchandise, somebody may deliver it — but these roles are ancillary to the commerce transaction, and in fact are more appropriately parts of the relationship the seller has with his backend and fulfillment procedures. After all, when you walk into a store to buy a book, the mailman isn’t standing next to the seller and participating in the transaction.

A very important element in the commerce transaction is the merchant’s customer service team, although it is unclear what role the presence and quality of customer service plays in the buyer’s decision to purchase from a merchant. What is clear is customer service’s important function as the representative of the online merchant: customer service is often the only contact for the customer, and usually the only way for the merchant to salvage a negative user experience or complaint into a positive reflection of the company’s quality service.

Recognizing Who’s Who

As obvious as these roles of buyer and seller may seem, it’s not always easy to identify who is playing what role. In the offline world, different stores (and often different types of stores) have their own rules for dress and comportment of the sales staff, which can create interesting dynamics with the customers. While appearance and judgments based on appearance can have an effect on the tenor of a business relationship, appearance often provides useful cues for identifying the roles and players.

The most common version of this buyer-seller relationship is that of the merchant, or store. If you walk into a book store, you are faced with some quite formal cues and rules. You know that the store has products for sale, and you can easily find the prices of the books. You can usually identify the employees, and while you may not see one specific “seller” you understand that the employees are all acting as agents for the merchant. You will probably see posted notices delineating the commerce rules for the merchant, such as return policies.

An important part of the commerce relationship is the need to authenticate the other party: Is the seller reputable? Can he follow through with his promises? Does the buyer have good credit? The buyer and seller sound each other out during their commerce conversation; they weigh each other’s manner and tone and body language. They look for social cues like seals of approval or credit ratings. They look to the people they know and past customers for a vetting of trust. They form judgments based on their perceptions and intuition, and they ultimately decide whether to complete the transaction. And you may even realize that the store employees have likely been taught how to treat and respond to customers, rules ranging from how to answer the phone to how to gift wrap purchases.

The adoption of appropriate roles isn’t always smooth. While working in a Borders Books store, I would routinely deal with customers who didn’t understand that we were a book store. The well-lit spaces, the natural wood shelves, the comfortable chairs and sofas scattered through the space all indicated to these folks that we were a library. People would ask us where they could sign up for a card in order to borrow books.

[ Read the next essay in this ecommerce series, Branding & Merchant Identity.]