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5 practical ways to improve your ecommerce customer journey (with real examples)
Either as a consumer or an online business owner, you’ve experienced the ecommerce customer journey.
As a consumer, you came, you saw, you purchased.
As an online business owner, you watched potential customers come, and see, and purchase—or you watched them exit your site, leaving you asking: why?
This article shows you how to find some answers. To keep it practical, we use real examples from designer furniture store MADE.COM, whose former Head of Digital Experience, Spencer Wong, wanted to improve the experience for MADE.COM customers across each stage of their journey
Last updated21 Jun 2023
Reading time11 min
What is the ecommerce customer journey?
‘Ecommerce customer journey’ describes the stages of a customer’s experience with an online business, from the moment they first become aware of its products to the moment they complete a purchase.
A clear, smooth online experience tends to have a positive impact on your potential customers. For example:
If your website loads quickly and without issues, your product and pricing pages are clear and easy to navigate, and your customer support team is easy to reach, your website visitors might feel comfortable with making a purchase
If your website is slow to load, your product pages are hard to navigate and hide unexpected costs, or there are too many support forms to fill out, your visitors might choose to bounce or exit—which is both an interrupted journey and a missed opportunity
Why is the ecommerce customer journey important?
Your customers develop opinions about your business (and whether or not they want to buy things from you) based on the sum of their interactions with your website. Visualizing these interactions as a ‘journey’ made of separate stages is a convenient way to look at a customer’s experience as a whole, and to understand what they may be looking for and needing at different touchpoints.
Giving thought to the entire customer journey can help you answer important questions, like:
Why did that customer abandon their shopping cart?
Did this person not find what they were looking for?
How can I learn from these customers’ actions on my site?
What changes do I need to make to my ecommerce store to increase conversions?
To find answers, let’s explore what a typical customer journey through your site might look and feel like.
5 stages of the ecommerce customer journey
The concept of ‘customer journey’ is very common in marketing, but your customers themselves may not be aware of—or at least aren’t thinking about—their actions on your website as ‘stages’ in a journey. Rather than thinking about each stage, they’re experiencing it.
You may be familiar with the traditional terms for the stages of the ecommerce customer journey, which are usually something like:
But in the spirit of customer centricity, we’re choosing to rename the stages of the customer journey to put ourselves in the customers’ shoes.
Here’s quick a visualization of five stages in the ecommerce customer journey, and what each means for your customers:
And here’s how each stage relates to your ecommerce business:
Stage 1: discovery
The customer learns about your product (“I found a site that sells designer furniture!”)
At this stage, you can learn where customers are coming from, what brought them to your website, which pages they’re landing on and navigating to, and the path that took them from one page to another. This is an opportunity to learn what new customers need—what they’re looking for on your site.
Stage 2: interest
The customer sees something they like, and they begin browsing your site (“They might have the perfect sofa for our living room—I’m going to take a look.”)
This stage, otherwise known as the consideration stage, might be a good time to figure out how to reduce bounce rates on your main pages and to get prospects to browse more products. This stage presents an opportunity to learn how to help customers find what they’re looking for as they explore your site.
Stage 3: intent
The customer adds items to a wishlist or a shopping cart, but they're still only considering the purchase (“Oh, this looks great—I’m going to save this for later and see what else I can find.”)
Here, you may be able to identify which page features are working to your advantage and what’s getting prospects to add products to their wishlists and shopping carts. This stage is also where a new marketing channel may enter the journey: the email list (which you can use to capture the addresses of people who are interested, but not ready to commit).
Stage 4: purchase
Also known as the ‘conversion’ stage, this is when the customer buys your product (“Yep, this is the one! It’s perfect!”)
This is the moment to start building a long-term relationship with your customers, and identify opportunities to better serve them in the future. This part of the journey is also a great time to run a post-purchase survey and get some quick feedback about what worked (or what didn’t) for people who just finished purchasing from you.
Stage 5: engagement
The customer comes back for more—they may purchase again, engage on social media, subscribe to your newsletter, read articles, and subscribe to customer-only bonuses and upsells (“I wonder if they have an article with tips on how to care for my new sofa…”)
At this point, you want new customers to become engaged and loyal customers. This is a good time to encourage customers to participate on social media, to get email list sign-ups, to promote loyalty programs, and to share helpful resources and articles. This stage presents an opportunity to increase customer retention and brand loyalty—get your customers coming back to browse more products and become an advocate for your brand.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the customer journey, let’s discuss how you can improve the customer’s experience on your ecommerce site.
5 ways to learn about the ecommerce journey from your customers
A common starting point to understand and improve your customers’ experience on your site is to turn to Google Analytics (GA) data (or another traditional analytics tool). With this tool, you can gain insight on unique pageviews, the average time people spend on each page, bounce rates, exit rates, and even how customers use your site’s ‘search’ bar.
However, there will come a point where metrics from Google Analytics aren’t enough for you to understand exactly what’s going on (or why), which is what Spencer at MADE.COM experienced. He used what he learned from GA to develop ideas about MADE.COM’s user experience (UX) issues—but the quantitative data wasn’t quite specific enough to explain why website visitors were behaving the way they were.
Spencer was also concerned that some of the pain points he hypothesized hadn’t been completely validated with customers, so he turned to tools that would complement the data he was getting from GA. Here’s a breakdown of the strategies he used :
An on-site survey to learn more about the ‘discovery’ stage
Heatmaps to visualize the ‘interest’ and ’intent’ stages
On-page surveys to improve the ‘intent’ and ‘purchase’ stages
Post-purchase surveys to understand the ‘engagement’ stage
And, to give you even more inspiration, we’ve thrown in a bonus strategy to turn to: capturing the bigger picture of the entire customer journey with funnel analysis and session recordings. Let’s take a look at these strategies in more detail.
💡Pro tip: Hotjar's GA integration allows you to connect quantitative and visual data for a more in-depth understanding of customer behavior. While GA shows you what’s happening on your site, we step in to help you understand why those things are happening.
1. Use an on-site survey to learn more about the ‘discovery’ stage
Placing a survey on your main traffic pages (on your homepage, for example) will help you learn more about the discovery or awareness stage of the customer journey, and understand what brought people to your website or to a specific sub-section of it for the first time.
To do this, Spencer placed a survey on the ‘showroom’ section of MADE.COMand asked the straightforward question, “How did you hear about this showroom?” to understand how visitors got there.
If this was your ecom website: a survey like this one would help you get a better sense of which channel(s) or search engines your visitors found you from. Remember that Google Analytics will report on the difference between paid or organic traffic demographics, but it won’t be able to account for sources such as word of mouth, friend referrals, or physical advertising. This is important information to consider, especially if survey results indicate that you should switch up your ecommerce marketing strategy and try catering to different target audiences.
💡Pro tip: on-page surveys can be used to learn even more about your customers’ discovery stage, beyond just how and where they came from. For example, you can place one on your main landing pages and collect extra details by asking:
What did you come here to do today?
What are you looking for today?
Who are you shopping for today?
Easily build an on-site survey and start collecting customer feedback in minutes with Hotjar
2. Use heatmaps to visualize the ‘interest’ and ’intent’ stages
When MADE.COM launched a new site design with updated navigation options, Spencer used heatmaps to see how people were interacting with them and behaving as a result.
With heatmaps, Spencer could see where people hovered over and clicked on the updated navigation options, and compared visitors’ interactions on the new and old versions of the page. This tool helped him illustrate how MADE.COM’s new navigation options were an improvement to the site: the recorded clicks proved that visitors were paying a lot more attention to navigation, which in turn led them to browse the site in new ways—and that’s particularly crucial in the interest stage, where people may be browsing or looking for inspiration.
The heatmap below is not the actual one Spencer used, but it still works in the same way—you can see how far people make it down the page and understand their movements on it:
If this was your ecom website: you could use heatmaps before and after a website redesign to evaluate if the changes you make to structure and layout influence customer behavior. You can also use heatmaps on critical ecommerce pages (such as product or basket pages), especially when you want to reduce bounce rates and get more people to convert. Heatmaps help you answer questions such as:
Are prospective customers clicking on key page elements (links, buttons, and CTAs)?
Are they seeing all the important information?
Are they experiencing issues across devices?
3. Use on-page surveys to improve the ‘intent’ and ‘purchase’ stages
On-page surveys are not just for the discovery stage: you can use them throughout the customer journey to get constant feedback on how to improve the experience.
For example, Spencer wanted to identify specific journey pain points that were identified by customers themselves. This can be done quickly with an open-ended survey question such as “What’s missing on this page?” or “What’s the one thing we should change on this page?”
Using this method, Spencer learned about features that were missing from the site. Above all things, MADE.COM’s customers wanted wishlist capabilities and a more streamlined, customized process for matching fabric samples with the products they were interested in.
If this was your ecom website: you could place an on-page survey to investigate elements specific to the interest and purchase stages, and ask your prospective customers questions throughout the checkout process, such as:
What information is missing or would make your decision to buy easier?
What’s your biggest fear or concern about purchasing this item?
Are you able to complete the purpose of your visit today?
If you’re not making a purchase today, what’s stopping you?
💡Pro tip: when surveying customers to improve their experience, it’s important to ask the right questions so you get the right answers—namely, the answers with the level of detail you need to take action. Once you have specific answers to your questions, you can apply what you’ve learned to your ecommerce customer journey and identify which stages are most affected by each UX issue.
Don’t just ask: What do you think about our online store?
Ask: What’s one change that we could make to improve your shopping experience?
Don’t just ask: Does this page have everything you need, Yes/No?
Ask: What would you like to see added to the page?
Don’t just ask: Is our website easy to use, Yes/No?
Ask: Were you able to find what you were looking for today?
4. Use post-purchase surveys to understand the ‘engagement’ stage
Your customers’ journey doesn’t have to end when they buy something—ideally, you want them to come back and become repeat customers. Sending a post-purchase survey via email and asking new customers for feedback is a great way to learn about what almost stopped them from converting and what might stop them from returning again.
At MADE.COM, Spencer was able to confirm that customers were interested in financing options. He asked direct questions about financing to learn what was most important to the customer, which options they wanted to see, and if they had a vendor preference. This turned out to be useful information for both the purchase and engagement stages, as it helped Spencer paint a clearer picture of an additional need that prospective and existing customers had when considering a first or repeat purchase.
If this was your ecom website: you could email a survey to your customers, or—if you want to go faster—simply set one to appear on your thank-you page after a customer’s order is confirmed. Use it to ask customer satisfaction questions such as:
How would you rate your overall experience?
What can we do to improve the experience?
What almost stopped you from completing your purchase?
5. Understand the entire customer journey with funnel analysis and session recordings
In addition to the stage-based strategies Spencer implemented when optimizing the customer journey at MADE.COM, it can be extremely useful to zoom out and take a look at the whole buyer’s journey holistically. This is where two tools—funnel analysis and session recordings—come in.
The term ‘funnel’ describes the path ecommerce site visitors take and how it inevitably narrows as some people decide to leave the site or become a customer at the end of their journey.
With ‘funnel analysis’, you trace the customer journey through specific steps (or web pages) that, hopefully, result in conversions or signups, so you can optimize the process by analyzing how many visitors end up in each stage. Knowing when your potential customers drop off at each stage is imperative for increasing your site’s lifetime value and conversion rates.
Using funnel analysis in tandem with a second tool—session recordings—will reveal your customers’ behaviors in high-definition. Are you left wondering why a lot of customers exit from a certain page in your funnel? Find out what might be missing from their online shopping experience by watching how customers behave throughout their entire journey.
Session recordings allow you to capture not only how visitors navigate through your site, they can help you uncover website usability issues that prevent visitors from making a purchase.
💡Pro tip: Hotjar integrates Recordings directly with Funnels, so you can identify pain points in your most important flows by watching recordings of potential customers who didn’t convert and make it to the next step.
Hotjar Funnels and Recordings can help identify what customer touchpoints throughout the journey affect your conversion rates
Focus on your customers
A final thing to remember: when it comes down to it, your ecommerce website is for your customers. By learning more about customers’ needs and behaviors through the five methods we just discussed, you’ll be five steps closer to giving them the clearest, smoothest path on their ecommerce journey.
📚 More reading: learn how to improve the user experience and increase revenue with these user-driven tools and methods for running ecommerce website analysis.
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