Milk vs. Wood Screws

Published 18 years, 2 months past

Over at UIE‘s Brain Sparks, the brilliant and lovely Christine Perfetti talked recently about the 7-11 Milk test, and how web sites fail this test 70% of the time.

I’m glad to see that they intend to do more research on the topic, because I think there’s a lot more to the story than just buying milk, and I hope that’s factored into the future research.  Buying on web sites, to me, is not really a 7-11 milk purchase.  It’s more like trying to buy a wood screw for a specific purpose at Home Depot when I’m used to buying them at a corner market.

See, 7-11’s are all pretty much the same.  If you’ve been in one, you know where to find the milk.  Even if the one you’re in is laid out differently than you expect, the conventions are all pretty much the same.  Even if you’ve never been in one before, it won’t take long to get the lay of the land and find the milk.

But walk into a Home Depot and you’re immediately overwhelmed.  I want to find this one thing that’s so tiny compared to what’s in front of me!  There’s an immediate low-level feeling of futility.  Furthermore, any expectations I might have from my local market experience are useless, or even counterproductive.  And even better is when I ask for help and get sent to the wrong place, as has happened to me many a time in Home Depot.

Once I do find the wood screws, then I’m presented with a wide range of choices, and I have to determine which one is best.  Odds are that there won’t be anyone there able to help me make a decision, either; I’m on my own to try to figure out which is the best wood screw for my needs.  The feeling of futility returns.  If I’m not particularly invested in buying this wood screw, I might just give up at this point: faced with too many choices, most of which are going to be wrong, I might decide to make no choice at all.

Furthermore, it’s much easier to bail out of the buying process on a web site.  If I’ve gone to the time and effort of finding and visiting a Home Depot, I’ve invested something in achieving an outcome.  With a web site, I can just come back later.

You can probably draw analogies between the experience I just described and shopping on a web site: the overwhelming home page, the search to find something resembling I want, the misleading cues, the array of choices once I get there.  If web sites were as consistent as 7-11 stores, and online purchases were as simple as “I need milk”, then yes, a 70% failure rate would be abominable—almost unimaginable.  Neither is the case, though.

Mind you, this is not to suggest we should shrug our shoulders and accept this state of affairs.  I think that UIE has an opportunity here to identify the chokepoints (and I use that word on purpose) in the shopping process.  Done correctly, what they find could be applicable in physical space as well as on web sites.

Comments (11)

  1. At first i was thinking that wood screws would be hard to find anywhere. Then I thought … “hmm, perhaphs he means screws for wood!”

  2. Do you think some transactions will always be too complicated for some people to manage “self-service”? I manage a website for a local authority in the UK ( and we have enough trouble setting up the input for a self-service request for a repair to a street light. It would probably have helped if we could show the location of the lights on a map – people find it impossible in text to give an accurate description of where the faulty light is.

  3. You’re comments are spot on Eric. I wrote an article on similar but broader lines not long back. One of the points was that we always prefer to buy an item (like wood screws) from someone who knows what they’re talking about: The old owner/operator in the hardware store who knows everything there is to know about wood screws. All the usability science in the world doesn’t help a lay person decide which screw is the one we need without some other clue, information or, most importantly, help.

    So it comes down to service. The meat space equivalent is asking a shop assistant and hoping they know what they’re talking about. On the Web most shopping experiences are passive and very few people actually call or contact as it’s often seen as a fail on the part of the client, or the interface. We have a service called Live Help though. It’s a text-chat that’s running on some busy client sites. To even my surprise it’s much used and very effective. However, like all customer service, it’s only as good as the knowledge of the person delivering it and like you say, there has to be someone there and available. I think that is more valuable in the long run in combination with better interfaces, and it”s certainly more achievable.

    Checkpoints would be useful though. Best practice would be useful. I don’t think the failure rate would change radically though. It’s not so much an expression of frustration as an expression of a behaviour change. Window shopping has become a Web pastime for some. A 70% failure rate isn’t so much a failure as a success – at least for the customer who got the entertainment they came for even if they bought nothing. Part of the enjoyment seems to be the browsing. Part seems also to be adding products to their basket even if they don’t purchase in the end. Purchases seem to be down a long path of customer capture and retention through entertainment. Shopping has become a leisure activity and many stores provide a shopping experience rather than an order interface. Although that’s not to say that a Web store shouldn’t provide a quick service counter as well as a bouncy castle. Personally, I often just want milk. Good practice, agreed consensually would go a long way to helping everyone buy on the Web with ease. Add responsive customer service to a possible set of standards and I think it would be a winner. Even window shoppers might find it more entertaining.

  4. Even after I have made a decision on a complicated purchase (a digital camera for example), I will often abandon multiple online shopping sessions because I will visit several online retailers to comparison shop. It is not uncommon for etailers to hide their shipping fees several steps into the checkout process.

  5. And to think I was just now getting annoyed at short-sited web site operators.

    I often find websites for brick and mortar businesses forget one of the main reasons I might visit – to find them. I’m not interested in flashy big graphics, I want an easy to use mostly text based store/business locator that I can get to quickly and easily from the home page. This is true for Home Depot or Olive Garden or Days Inn.

    When I’m on the road speed is often dailup and screen size is often PDA. So once again proper clean HTML/CSS that degrades gracefully = good, huge image maps = bad.

    Next, when I am using a modern browser PLEASE realize I will be browsing with tabs. I open almost all links in a new tab. So I’ll probably open new tabs for lots of stuff when browsing a “store”, pay attention to how your cookies work and don’t put the wrong stuffin my “basket”.

    And, if your form processing is too retarded to handle the spaces/dashes in my credit card number/phone number/SSN/… that allow me not to go crosseyed when proof-reading it then I’m pretty sure that ringing you hear is the clue phone.

    As a special note to Ticketmaster – I might just get a phone call or have to go find a credit card… while filling out your form so why don’t we make the timeout something more reasonable.

  6. Eric, you are quite correct, in my opinion. I live in a rural area of Australia. I can buy milk without any trouble. But there are lots of things that are very difficult to buy. I haven’t tried woodscrews yet. Books are an obvious example. My electric razor needed new blades a few months ago. In a major city I would have no trouble, but for those of us in the bush the internet is the most efficient way to go.

  7. At first glance, I understood the title of the article to mean “[Milk vs. Wood] Screws”, as opposed to the intended “Milk vs. [Wood Screws]”. :p

  8. It would be interesting to know what the “conversion” rate is for brick and mortar stores which sell similar items, and also compare that to successful online stores. I wonder if there could be a pretty standard metric by which to measure a site’s conversion success.

  9. Coming from an advertising background, I can add that, when launching something new, the public almost never behaves the way you expect them to. What works in advertising is what, through trial and error, you’ve proven does work – and as soon as you vary the parameters … once again, all bets are off.

  10. The article title is kinda misleading
    [Milk vs. Wood] Screws
    “Milk vs. [Wood Screws]

  11. For me, online shopping usually begins with a Google search. (I guess this would be the brick-and-mortar equivalent of thumbing through the yellow pages and calling around to see who carries wood screws.)

    Usually, I have some questions about the product I want to buy. I need to be educated and I want to do a bit of comparison shopping. The Web is perfectly suited for this behavior. I can visit several of the most appropriate-looking sites returned in the Google search results and browse around them all. I definitely will not be purchasing wood screws from all of them, however. I’m learning along the way – not only about the product, but about the usability of each site. If I’m not pleased with what I see, I’ll dip back into the search results and try again.

    Performing the same amount of research over the phone or by driving around would be a much bigger investment of my time and energy.

    I don’t think my habits are unique. Based on this education process of hitting multiple vendors of the same item, it’s easy to see why many visits don’t result in a sale.

    Short version: e-commerce and brick-and-mortar commerce are very different animals which makes applying a brick-and-mortar example like a 7-11 milk purchase to an e-commerce experience a very difficult challenge.

Add Your Thoughts

Meyerweb dot com reserves the right to edit or remove any comment, especially when abusive or irrelevant to the topic at hand.

HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strong> <pre class=""> <kbd>

if you’re satisfied with it.

Comment Preview