Why Online Shops Need Clerks

Shop assistant

“Good afternoon visitor from Amsterdam and welcome to YourStore.com. Our systems indicate that the weather in The Netherlands is currently rather chilly. Therefore you’re most likely here to have a look at the latest winter arrivals. To accommodate you in your search I’ve already taken the liberty to display some promotional winter specials below. If you need any assistance, just tap the icon in the top-right corner of your screen.”

The internet is getting more personal

The fictional exchange described in the introduction might very well portray how websites will greet us in the near future. By combining data that is transmitted through your browser on each visit to a website (such as your country of residence) with assistive technology, website owners can start to offer their visitors a more pleasant shopping experience.

Offline vs. Online conversion rate

A recent study by NPD Group shows that regular brick and mortar (offline) shops can have an average conversion rate from visitor to customer in the range of 50-70%. The conversion rates of online shops on the other hand, is reported by the Nielsen Norman Group to be around 2%. This indicates that offline shops are converting their visitors at least 25 times better than most ecommerce websites. Of course one could cite a number of technical reasons to explain this finding (such as a terribly slow website or server errors). However, another major contributor to a low conversion rate is found in the visitor’s inability to complete their intended task or ‘micro conversion’ (buying a product, signing up for a service, etc.). The fact that online shops currently don’t have clerks that can assist you with a wide range of problems will likely be costing them dearly in missed conversions.

Personal online shop assistant

What if websites had clerks just like offline shops? One could wonder what such clerks would be doing and how they could assist your shopping experience. Luckily there are already similar services being offered online. One of such services is Google Now. From the Wikipedia entry about Google Now: “Google Now is an intelligent personal assistant (…). Google Now uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of web services. Along with answering user-initiated queries, Google Now passively delivers information to the user that it predicts they will want, based on their search habits.”.

Tailored to your website

Unfortunately, tools such as Google Now aren’t capable of dealing with the unique problems and questions that visitors face when browsing your website. But what if a tool existed that combined the capabilities of Google Now and tailored them to your website? Such a tool could then function as a powerful assistant able to help visitors by answering their questions or eliminate any uncertainties or fears they might have.

Potential ways to help customers

clerkSeveral aspects that play a role in shaping your shopping experience will be outlined below. The potential ways in which a personal online shop assistant could contribute to these aspects will also be mentioned. Additionally, principles taken from the excellent book Persuasive Technology by renowned social psychologist B. J. Fogg will be used to illustrate how helping users perform such tasks will improve your chances of converting a visitor.


An assistant could provide advice. For example it could advise you to verify whether or not a certain piece of software will run on your hardware, or provide information on how long your layover between two connecting flights is.

Principle of Authority: When the assistant will assume a role of authority, it will have enhanced power of persuasion. Example: “Check this chart to see if you have enough RAM in your computer to run this software” is more like to persuade a visitor to look up the information than “You might want to have a look at this chart, it could contain information about the amount of RAM required to run the software”. Principle of Trustworthiness: The assistant should also be trustworthy (truthful, fair, and unbiased) for it to have maximum persuasive abilities. Example: Make sure to offer unbiased comparisons when lining up your products or services against those of your competitors. When visitors sense that the assistant isn’t presenting unbiased information, they will quickly lose faith in it.


Many websites will confront visitors with an extensive range of products or services, but fail to provide intuitive ways of filtering this data. The role of the assistant would be to ask the visitor relevant questions and filter the products or services that are displayed based on the replies that are given. By removing irrelevant choices, the assistant makes it more likely that a someone will find the product or service that fits them best, and will convert from a visitor customer.

Principle of Tunneling: When guiding visitors through a process or experience, the assistant can persuade along the way. Example: When a user indicates his/her interest in a certain brand, the assistant could for instance promote the best selling or top rated products by that brand (depending on what serves the interest of the visitor best).


Clerks often recommend products that might be a better fit to the customer’s desires. A digital assistant should be able to read the ‘digital body language’ of a customer just as well as a clerk can. By presenting a visitor with alternative choices that match his/her (hidden) desires better, the online assistant can provide a valuable service.

Principle of Personalization: By providing personalized advice and content website can gain a boost in credibility. Furthermore, if as website succeeds in their goal of providing relevant and personalized content, this can lead to more satisfied customers.


The clerks that man offline shops have a great expertise in alternative products that customers might want, which items are on stock, sales, and what the competition is doing. By having the digital assistant offer means of comparing what the shop itself is offering to the products that competitors are offering, visitors will get a better view of what options they have.

Principle of Expertise: When the assistant is able to show a high level of expertise (knowledge, experience, and competence), the website it’s linked to gains increased powers of persuasion.

Principle of Information Quality: Assuming the information that the shop assistant delivers is current, relevant and well-coordinated, that would give the website a better chance of creating attitude or behavior change.


Visitors of brick and mortar stores get personal attention from store clerks. For a short moment they can ask any questions they feel like, and find out more about the products or services they are looking for.

Principle of Tailoring: By making sure the personal assistant will provide information that is tailored to the individual’s needs, interests, personality and usage context, it will gain increased powers of persuasion. Example: Information about the country of origin and the time of day are available to the assistant. Furthermore, information such as the purchase history, gender, age, etc. become available once a visitor has placed an order in the past. By using this information, the assistant will be able to serve tailored information and offer content or products that are relevant to the visitor.


The assistant should be able to help visitors with their every request, and do it fast. Clerks in offline shops don’t keep visitors waiting, and when they don’t have a satisfactory answer to a questions a patron has, they will make sure to find it out be other means. In order to be truly useful, online store clerks should be able to do the same.

Principle of Responsiveness: By being as responsive as possible, the assistant make the website it’s linked to gain perceived credibility.

Available solutions

At the moment, I wasn’t able to find any software that is able to provide all the tasks listed above. Though startups such as Clerk seem promising, currently they only seem to offer personalized search, product recommendation and automated retention, therefore missing out on many other opportunities to assist visitors. In absence of a full-service tool, I’ll now discuss some interesting ways in which you can offer your visitor services such as the ones I’ve just described.

Be responsive

Make sure visitors can reach you via as many communication channels as possible. For example, SiteGround does an excellent job at this in my opinion by offering both ticket support, and direct help via chat and telephone (to which they reply respectively within 10 minutes or instantly).


Tools such as SiteSpect and Optimizely allow you to segment your traffic based on specific characteristics of (groups of) visitors. As an example of what segments you might use, Optimizely offers advice on the 7 essential customer segments for your e-commerce website. By carefully segmenting your traffic, and offering tailored content and products based on their predicted desires, you can begin to approach the experience that offline shops can offer their visitors.

Problems of personalization

While the promise of personal shop assistant seems great, they might lead to new problems too. For instance, people might get scared off by personalizing your website too much. Just imagine how it would feel if a website you don’t recall ever visiting before has your name, country, email address and credit card number pre-filled when you enter the checkout page.


Furthermore, with the personalization revolution picking up speed, organizations should start thinking about the potential ethical problems that personalization carries with it. In order to keep ‘Big Brother’ at bay, we should make sure there will soon be international guidelines that serve people with respect to their privacy. These guidelines should include obligatory opt-out mechanisms to serve visitors that don’t want websites to know too much about them, no matter how they might or might not benefit from this.

Dutch translation: Waarom Webshops Winkelbedienden Nodig Hebben

Theo van der Zee

Author: Theo van der Zee

He is the founder of ConversionReview. He has been building and optimizing websites for 15+ years now, and doing so with great success.

On top of his digital skills, Theo is also a trained psychologist and frequent speaker at events around the world.