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Amazon.com may not be the model of financial prosperity, but its Web site is one of the Internet’s best shopping locales. By making its online store easy to navigate and use, Amazon has created an environment where money is easy to spend. The company may still be months-or years-from significant profitability, but that didn’t stop its customers from buying more than $2.7 billion worth of goods last year.

With all that money pumping through Amazon’s site, you’d think that other online retailers would take notice. Not true! Most companies still have tremendous difficulty building Web sites that are easy to use-despite years and billions of dollars spent trying. Considering the money that stands to be gained, you would expect that more companies would be following Amazon’s lead.

Take something as simple as electronic shopping carts. Last fall, when Amazon changed its privacy policy to claim ownership of its customers’ personal information, I decided to protest by giving a competitor, CDNow, a try. I was impressed by how CDNow let me search for albums by artist, record label, and album and song title, and I liked being able to hear 30-second samples of the songs over the Web (even though the sound quality was pretty poor). On the other hand, CDNow’s site was glacially slow; even with my cable modem, it took me 45 minutes to pick out five albums and put them in my shopping cart.

So far, so good. But before I could whip out my credit card and hit the “buy” button, something came up and I had to get up from my computer. The moment had passed. A few days later I remembered that I had never bought my CDs, so I surfed back into the CDNow site. But when I clicked on the cute shopping cart icon, it was empty-my cart had expired. Rather than go back tediously through the CDNow interface, I went over to Amazon, typed in the names of the albums, and then headed for the checkout. Besides the $75 worth of CDs, my shopping cart also contained $150 worth of books that I had picked out a few weeks before but neglected to order. Unlike CDNow, Amazon doesn’t throw out the contents of your shopping cart, even if months have passed since you made your selections. This may sound like a trivial detail, but by paying attention to shopping usability, Amazon kept this customer happy-and tripled a sale.

The computer programmer in me says that maybe shopping carts should expire-it’s a waste of disk space to save data for millions of shopping carts that might never be used again. In a real supermarket, after all, clerks take the food out of abandoned carts and put it back on the shelves. But Web sites are different from physical stores, and disk drives are incredibly cheap these days. For a few hundred dollars, CDNow could buy a disk large enough to store more than a million electronic shopping carts. The company’s decision to empty mine cost not only that one sale, but future sales as well.

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Tagged: Business, Web

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