Case Study in Online Purchasing
Who’s the easiest person to sell to? A salesperson. The hardest? A marketer. Why? We’re always nitpicking our way through your entire buying process, because our job is to create the most stellar purchasing experience to improve conversion rates for our products and services, i.e., sales. And we’re constantly learning from those merchants who do it wrong as much as those who do it right.
My family just bought a new home.
What’s the first thing you do when you buy a new home? You change all the exterior door knobs, locks and deadbolts. Seems like a pretty simple, straightforward task. Something that shouldn’t take much brain power or much time. That’s what I thought at least.
Here’s a story about one man’s journey to buy exterior door knobs online and how that journey ended in frustration and an insecure house. There is an easier way, and this story ends with a valuable lesson about what the future of online consumerism looks like.
I admit the first problem here is that I’m a rather precise person. (My wife uses far more colorful adjectives, such as meticulous, fastidious and picky!) I know exactly what I want, and I don’t want anything else. But I’m not that much different than the majority of consumers. The Internet has taught us that we can be ‘precise’ and get not only WHAT we want, but also WHEN we want it.
In this case, here’s what I needed:
- Three door knob sets (regular door knob and deadbolt)
- One decorative door handle set with a deadbolt
- One door knob without a deadbolt (interior - leads to attic)
- Everything needs to be in satin chrome
- And I want ONE key that works in all the keyholes (i.e., I don’t want unique keys for the front and garage doors)
Sounds pretty straight-forward, right?
Well, I’ve been working on this “challenge” for two weeks (4+ hours of searching), I’ve trudged my way to two (2) brick-and-mortar stores and searched three (3) websites, and I haven’t placed an order yet. During this recent attack of frustration, I’ve realized that a very good lesson was buried in this experience, and I want to articulate how these problems could be solved. I know I am not alone!
I started by going to the physical Home Depot and Lowes stores, but quickly realized they didn’t have what I needed in stock. So, I did what any young millennial does when trying to make a somewhat complex purchase. I jump online.
First, I started with Home Depot’s website. They’re a good resource for residential and consumer needs, plus I know by visiting the stores in the past they generally have what I need. My assumption was that buying items online from them would make this process even easier.
Let’s start with HomeDepot.com and Faceted Search
First, the faceted search on their site is not helpful for my needs.
[Faceted (or navigational) search uses a hierarchy structure (taxonomy) to enable users to browse information by choosing from a predetermined set of categories. This allows a user to type in a simple query, then refine their search options by navigating, i.e., drilling down. There’s an advanced search going on in the background instead of the user having to think of the additional search categories on their own.]
You’re able to break down your search by price and brand. I’m not interested in those two factors. I’m looking for a solution to my problem. Not a specific brand. I’m not saying that no customer would find it useful… just not this customer.
They also break their products into categories. At first I didn’t see this feature, because it’s merged into the products, but at least this is heading in the right direction.
“Entry Door Knobs” is definitely what I need, but there is also a category for “Door Lock Combo Packs”… also what I need. This is where the faceted search should have been used. It would be best if I could filter my search by both of these criteria, but I can’t. So, I open both categories in two new browser tabs to compare results. Not ideal.
Product Category: Entry Door Knobs
I review the Entry Door Knobs page first. This page includes 24 products per page, and there are 11 pages in total. About 264 products to choose from. However, the results I see are not close to what I need. Colors are all wrong, and I don’t see any kits. Great… let’s use the search filter to get rid of those unneeded products.
In the Hardware Finish section, Chrome Satin isn’t an option, but Chrome and Silver are both options, so I check them both. Now we are down to 112 products.
The problem is, I’m still not seeing any sets. I attempt to open all five (5) pages of product results to do a quick skim, but the system won’t allow me to Command+Click the pager numbers to open in new tabs. What?????
At this point, my frustration level is ticking upwards, I’m not finding what I need, and I’m close to leaving the HomeDepot.com eCommerce website.
(Note: Please keep in mind this rant isn’t just an opportunity for me to vent about bad website experiences. I’m not THAT high maintenance. There is a lesson buried in here… bear with me!)
Page 2: I see one product that matches what I’m looking for. Great! Command+Click does work on individual items, so I open it in a new tab. Continue to Page 3, etc. In the process I find a total of three (3) products. I open them all in separate browsers, and then take a look at that other category I opened earlier.
Product Category: Door Lock Combo Packs
Ok, now we’re closer to what I’m looking for. All kits. Far less options. I narrow down the options to Chrome and Silver again. Only 14 products to choose from. Perfect! I go through the list of 14 and any combo kits that look attractive. I open in new tabs.
I now have EIGHT tabs of product details pages open in total. As I flip through the tabs, I realize that most won’t work. Three are double cylinder locks (i.e., must use a key on both sides of the bolt), another can’t lock from inside (only good for kids rooms), etc. This narrows down my options to two. The only difference between them is their brand and price.
At this point, I need to solve the ‘key matching’ problem. I also don’t have a decorative option or the attic door knob, but I decide I’ll figure that out next… let’s focus on the keys. Keep in mind that I’m already 20-30 minutes into this process by now.
I quickly realize that my need (i.e., ordering multiple sets with matching keys) is not possible online. There is no option for it. There are multiple comments in the reviews and in the product FAQs saying that “you can’t order matching keys online, you have to go to the store.” The only option I have is to use the HomeDepot.com website tool to find where I can get these products in a store, drive to the store, and see if I can (hopefully) find matching keys. The closest Home Depot with enough of these products in stock is not even close, actually it’s many miles away.
I can’t place my order. Driving that distance is unrealistic.
On to Lowes.com
Next, I navigate to Lowes.com, and see if they’ve solved this key matching problem on their site. Nope. Same problem.
For the sake of browsing, I quickly skim through the Lowes.com site to see their options. Maybe they have more information hidden in the product details pages? Maybe I’m just missing something?
No luck. I can’t find what I’m looking for on Lowes.com either.
It then occurs to me that this is a very specific problem. There’s not a board of professionals at Home Depot and Lowes HQ trying to figure out how to make it easier for people to buy deadbolts online. That’s ridiculous. They have other things to worry about. But a small start up somewhere could see this problem and attempt to launch a solution, right? Let’s Google it.
Let’s try DoorKnobsOnline.com
Googling “Buy Deadbolts online” led me to the website DoorKnobsOnline.com. This shop must have solved the problem, right? I mean, that’s what they do. The solution is in their name.
As it turns out, this website has an enormous catalog of in-stock products. Plus, they seem to be able to cut corners on the prices, because they are selling online. But, they're not actually solving the problems I’m having. Just another catalog, but with a better search engine and more thorough faceted search.
I’ll save you all the gory details, but suffice it to say, I go through the whole process that I originally did with HomeDepot.com. I narrow down a list. Find some products. And quickly realize I’m not going to get what I want here either.
The Lesson Learned
There’s a good reason I vented about all this detailed nonsense. There is most definitely a lesson here. In this specific case, no one has taken the time to define the customers actual challenges around a specific product. People buy and sell houses everyday in the U.S., not to mention the dozens of other reasons people change their locks. This do-it-yourself doorknob issue is not uncommon. But in this case, our ‘problem’ hasn’t even been considered by these businesses. They are just selling products.
Plus, as the customer, I’m left with a lot of questions. For instance, there are two standard deadbolt sizes. Why? How do I know which my door uses now? Which one do I need? Is one better than the other? UGH!
If you build it, they will come
Putting on my ‘marketer’ hat for a moment, the DoorKnobsOnline.com site is perfectly positioned to grab a large part of the do-it-yourself AND contractor market from the ‘big boy’ retailers, online or otherwise. However, I think they’re missing the winning piece of the opportunity: Customer education and solving specific problems.
In my line of work, I meet manufacturers and distributors all the time that simply want to sell their products online. I get it. That make sense. That’s where the money is. But using this experience as an example, the path to winning people over (people like you and me) is by being helpful…. by being knowledgeable and understanding the customer’s challenges and delivering solutions.
Imagine if DoorKnobsOnline.com solved these problems. Imagine if they made it insanely easy for everyone to submit orders for exactly what they need. What new channels of revenue would it open for them? Real estate agents could recommend them to new homeowners: “Congrats on the house! Don’t forget new locks from DoorKnobsOnline.com — They make it super easy….”
DoorKnobsOnline.com could be the one, go-to place that everyone knows will solve the hassle of securing your new home. Heck, friends could even send DoorKnobsOnline.com gift cards as a housewarming gift. If they made it insanely easy and educational, the crowds would come. And when you find the ‘right place’ to shop, you tend to return again and again — and refer others.
Brick-and-mortar store shopping — at places such as Home Depot and Lowes — is slowly fading. In my family, we buy everything online (except for fresh produce… we haven’t made that leap, yet). In this case, I thought going to the store (old fashioned shopping) would be easier, and I was wrong. It was equally difficult in both environments.
Ten short years from now, when millennials all have families, own houses, and are the business leaders of the world, no one will shop in person. Everything will come in via UPS and FedEx (or other delivery service yet to be created?) boxes to your front door step.
If your business is not ready for that kind of world, you need to rethink your business model or think about an exit strategy. And if your business is preparing for that kind of world, focus on the challenges that you can solve with your online presence. It’s not only about selling. It’s about becoming genuinely interested in people’s challenges, delivering what they need in terms of education, and problem-solving — first.