- In general, DTC benchmark sites perform similarly compared to the average e-commerce site across our benchmarks, with both performing on average in the “mediocre” to “decent” range.
- However, DTC benchmark sites have a significantly smaller spread compared to traditional e-commerce sites, with far fewer DTC site performing in the “broken” to “poor” range.
- “Homepage”, “Category & Navigation, and “Product Lists” are core to users’ product-finding strategies on DTC sites, but receive mixed scores according to our benchmark, indicating room for improvement.
Baymard recently published a new in-depth Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) Benchmark Database.
Representing a mix of both younger and more niche small-catalog brands as well as established, more traditional DTC retailers, this database contains DTC UX performance rankings for the following 36 DTC sites:
Niche small-catalog DTC brands: Our Place, Away, Bang & Olufsen, Twice, Everlane, Harry’s, Snowe, Anine Bing, Backdrop, and Fitbit.
Established DTC retailers: Gucci, Van Cleef & Arpels, Louis Vuittion, TAG Heuer, Adidas, Chanel, Jimmy Choo, Apple, Marks & Spencer, L.L. Bean, H&M, Nike, IKEA, American Eagle, GAP, Dell, Victoria’s Secret, LEGO, Ann Taylor, Disney Store, HP, GoPro, Microsoft, Thermo Fisher, Berlin Packaging, and Hitachi.
These sites have been manually assessed by Baymard researchers across 485 research-based UX parameters relevant for DTC websites.
In this article we’ll analyze this benchmark dataset to provide an overview of the UX performance of DTC, and outline 5 common design pitfalls and strategic solutions applicable to most DTC sites.
This article is divided into the following sections:
- DTC Industry Overview
- DTC UX Performance Overview
- DTC Homepage
- DTC Category & Navigation
- DTC Product Lists
- Conclusion: Help Users Learn about Your DTC Brand
DTC Industry Overview
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands, as the name suggests, sell their products directly to consumers through their own website.
While many young, niche DTC brands eschew the traditional retail model altogether, doing business directly with customers exclusively online, many larger and more established brands also engage in traditional retail practices, either maintaining their own brick-and-mortar stores or partnering with traditional retailers to resell their products.
Generally speaking, DTC sites exclusively sell their own brand, making their product catalog significantly smaller than larger traditional B2C sites (e.g., Amazon, Target, Home Depot, etc.).
While the largest DTC sites may carry hundreds of items, niche DTC brands may carry only a handful of products — or even only a single product.
As a result, many DTC sites won’t need to maintain hierarchies of product options and navigation choices, brand filters, or, in many cases, on-site search.
With a relative lack of choice compared to shopping at large B2C sites that carry multiple brands, users browsing DTC sites instead value “getting to know” the brand and products at a deeper level before they make a purchase decision, with many wanting to feel like the site shares their tastes, values, and goals.
In practice, DTC sites thereby focus heavily on their “Brand” and “Product” stories, leading to a unique depth of information about both the company overall and its products.
While many of Baymard’s UX guidelines and suggestions to accommodate user behavior still apply to DTC, the need to help users learn about and understand the offerings of a new niche brand results in topics such as the “Homepage”, “Category & Navigation”, and “Product Lists” taking on extra importance for DTC sites.
DTC UX Performance Overview
For this analysis we’ve summarized the 17,000+ DTC usability scores addressing 41 topics and plotted these benchmarked DTC sites across these in the scatterplot above. Each dot, therefore, represents the summarized UX score of one site across the 3–19 guidelines within that respective topic. The top row is the total overall DTC site UX performance.
In general, DTC benchmark sites perform similarly compared to the average e-commerce site across our benchmarks, with both performing on average in the “mediocre” to “decent” range. The slightly worse performance of mobile compared to desktop is similar to what we see consistently across all industries.
However, DTC benchmark sites have significantly smaller spread compared to traditional e-commerce sites, with far fewer DTC sites performing in the “broken” to “poor” range.
Looking at specific e-commerce themes and topics, we see that DTC sites tend to perform best when it comes to “Homepage”, with 8 sites performing “good” or “perfect”. This suggests that these companies have paid special attention to their homepage as a way to appropriately introduce new users to the brand and its offerings.
However, DTC benchmark performance is much lower when it comes to other themes and topics, including “Product Lists”, “Cart & Checkout”, and “Account & Self-Service”.
In this article, we will focus on “Homepage”, “Category & Navigation”, and “Product Lists”, as these are core to users’ product-finding strategies on DTC sites.
Despite being the best-performing topic in our DTC UX benchmark, we still see some common issues when it comes to helping new users learn about the brand and its product offerings.
In testing, the homepage was a critical resource for users to not only get to know the brand but also start learning about products’ core features and what makes them stand out from potentially better-known alternatives.
In fact, nearly all users in testing of DTC sites scrolled through the entire homepage to get a sense of what the site had to offer — a significant difference compared to behavior on large B2C retail sites, where users more often only glance at the homepage before diving in to the main navigation or search.
If users scanning the homepage are unconvinced about a DTC site’s unique product qualities or brand attributes, they are likely to conclude the site’s products don’t meet their needs and abandon the site without exploring further — never reaching product details or supplemental pages that may have won them over with detailed product features or illustrative product imagery.
In particular, there are 2 issues DTC sites tend to get wrong when it comes to enhancing their homepage.
1) Not Highlighting Core Product and Brand Features
Generally speaking, a site’s homepage serves as an important introduction to a brand and its product offerings. This is especially true for first-time users, who may be unfamiliar with the brand’s unique products and overall value proposition.
During our testing of DTC sites, users were quick to assume the homepage would preview everything important about the brand and its products, highlighting not only featured products, but also unique brand and product attributes or important brand information.
In practice, users rely on this knowledge to decide whether or not the site has anything of value to offer and if it’s worth staying to explore further.
For many users, evaluating whether the site has anything of interest goes beyond what kinds of products that are offered, extending to nonproduct information, including the brand’s aesthetic and overall value proposition, availability of generous policies such as free shipping or a liberal return policy, and the perceived trustworthiness of the site.
During testing, when users felt the homepage lacked enough detail about key product or brand information — essentially, when the homepage failed to effectively highlight why the brand and its products were special — they quickly lost interest in the brand and were more likely to abandon the site.
In effect, the homepage needs to pique users’ interest in the products and brand, helping entice them to stay — but without overwhelming them with too much information all at once.
2) Favoring On-Site Product Reviews over Social Media and Other External Review Sources
In our testing of direct-to-consumer (DTC) sites, users were overwhelmingly skeptical about site-provided claims and reviews.
Far from being one of the most essential tools for learning about products, as observed in testing of large B2C sites, users testing DTC sites typically only glanced through site-provided reviews, relying far more heavily on other product page information and — importantly — off-site review content for making their purchase decision.
In fact, 62% of DTC users stated that they would engage in their own research and seek third-party or external reviews before being confident enough to purchase products from an unfamiliar brand, and 29% of users actually went off-site during the test session to find reviews or external information.
To supplement site-provided information and provide independent verification of reviews and overall sentiment, users repeatedly turned to external resources, such as general web searches and social media, reasoning that third-party sites would be less prone to bias and manipulation and therefore be more trustworthy.
During testing, we observed several types of external resources users often turned to to learn more about brands and their products; in particular, general web searches, Instagram, Reddit, and YouTube. While these weren’t the only external resources mentioned or accessed, they do provide some insight into typical resources users may consult when pursuing information about an unknown brand.
What’s more, the third-party nature of social media posts also allows them to serve as a source of independent review content, being perceived as more authentic. As one user from testing observed, “[Instagram] is almost another way to look at reviews”.
Given the importance of these external resources, it makes sense for DTC brands to consider the off-site presentation and perception of the brand and what content users might uncover through general internet searches or social media.
Taking social media investment one step further, brands should consider facilitating exploration of their social media messaging by integrating social media content such as Instagram posts into the site itself.
Serving in part as lifestyle or human model images, such integration can be a natural fit on the homepage, but also product details pages or as a separate dedicated page (e.g., “Shop Instagram”).
With only 3 in 10 DTC sites integrating social media into their homepage, this represents a significant opportunity to further leverage investment in social media channels while enhancing the value and perceived trustworthiness of site-provided content.
DTC Category & Navigation
“Category Taxonomy” ranks among the lowest scoring topics in the benchmark, with more than a quarter of benchmark sites presenting a “broken” experience.
In general, DTC users still need to “get to know” the brand and if it has anything of interest of offer — and be able to easily navigate without getting bogged down or distracted.
Considering the importance of “Category Taxonomy” and navigation — giving users a framework for understanding the site’s product offerings and providing the means to navigate towards products of interest — poor performance in this area is likely to have a major impact on users’ DTC site experience.
Yet due to having a tighter, narrower product catalog, niche DTC sites need to provide a lighter and more streamlined “Category Taxonomy” compared to large B2C retailers.
Just as noticeable as what DTC sites need to provide users, relative to general B2C sites, is what they don’t need to provide, especially when it comes to “Category Taxonomy”.
Here, we’ll highlight 2 issues DTC sites should focus on when considering navigation and “Category Taxonomy”.
3) Having Too-Many Navigation Layers (i.e., “Intermediary Category Pages”)
For traditional and mass-merchant retailers, intermediary category pages help users better understand the full range of options within a particular category and highlight navigational paths and related content.
However, with fewer and less-diverse products and a flattened category taxonomy, direct-to-consumer (DTC) and other small catalog sites simply have fewer potential navigational paths for users to decide among.
In fact, testing of DTC sites showed intermediary category pages to impede, rather than enhance, the experience of browsing products.
On DTC sites, intermediary category pages frustrate users and fatigue them before they even begin the process of making their product selection.
For example, one user from testing, having clicked no fewer than three times before arriving on the product list, stated, “I just need one product, click, and this page [the product list]. That’s all I need, just two clicks. They asked me to do five clicks to get to this product”.
In testing, 31% of users on one test site with intermediary category pages (Greats) struggled to reach the product list, with many initially misinterpreting the intermediary category page as the product list and missing out on functionality such as filters that they had not reached yet.
In general, sites require a minimum number of products before the value of intermediary category pages outweighs the cost of the additional navigational clicks.
Indeed, even on mass-merchant sites our testing has shown that overcategorization can be an issue, which causes users to have trouble understanding the site hierarchy and leads to several “dead end” product categories with only a handful of products.
With a shallow and narrow product hierarchy, DTC and other small catalog sites lack the need to so finely segment users and direct them towards divergent paths, making intermediary category pages an unnecessary and burdensome step.
4) Not Providing a “Best Sellers” Category
When arriving on a new or unfamiliar e-commerce site, users can easily be overwhelmed with where to begin browsing products.
This is especially true for younger DTC brands that users are less likely to have heard much about or have previous experience with. On these sites, new users often need an overview of the available product range as well as additional guidance towards where to begin exploring and which products will be the most promising.
During testing, we observed that promoting a “Best Sellers” category provides an essential path to finding relevant products, serving as a popular entry point to begin exploring the site. In fact, 23% of users testing DTC sites that offered a “Best Sellers” category used it, often as their first navigational choice from the homepage.
For example, one user, arriving on the homepage of a DTC watch site, shared, “Because I’m not that familiar with watches, I’m kind of looking for any recommendations or…anything to indicate what’s the best-seller. I’m looking for guidance”.
Only half of benchmark DTC sites provide a “best sellers” category, making this a missed opportunity to guide new users to products that are likely to be of interest.
DTC Product Lists
With far fewer products than larger traditional retailers, direct-to-consumer (DTC) sites are often able to have much more streamlined product lists — possibly even maintaining only a single list containing all of the brand’s products.
Yet despite this, the layout and presentation of the product list still has a major impact on users’ ability to easily see what products are available and decide which to explore further.
During testing of DTC sites, we observed certain product list implementations could be devastating, even when listing only a handful of products.
One of the most important issues for DTC product lists is presenting product variations.
5) Not Combining Product Variations
Users are often interested in certain variations of a product, such as colors. However, we’ve observed repeatedly in testing that displaying product variations as separate list items results in distinct drawbacks.
DTC sites may be tempted to split out product variations in an attempt to make their product catalog look larger than it really is.
However, we observed the same behaviors during DTC testing, with users reacting negatively to “padded” DTC product lists that presented individual product variations as separate list items.
As on larger product lists, separating product variations obscures the true number of different products available and makes it harder for users to home in on products of interest.
When there are separate list items for each variation, the product list becomes cluttered, even with relatively few products — in effect, the ratio of unique products in the list drops.
As a result, users will need to spend more time scrolling through list items to find unique products than they would if variations were combined in one list item — and if the variations don’t appear one after the other, users would need to continuously work out as they scroll through the list which products are different to those viewed already.
Combining variations in product list items resolves the many issues users face with separate list items for variations.
When product variations are combined, product lists contain only unique products, which helps users get an overview of products more easily.
Almost 12% of DTC benchmark sites fail to combine product variations, giving users an inaccurate impression of the site’s product breadth.
Help Users Learn about Your DTC Brand
This high-level analysis of DTC UX focuses on only 3 of the 41 DTC subtopics included in our benchmark analysis. The 38 other subtopics should be reviewed as well to gain a comprehensive understanding of DTC UX, as well as to identify other site-specific issues not covered here.
Our DTC UX benchmark shows that the average DTC site has a “mediocre” or “decent” UX overall — making it clear that there’s still room for improvement.
Indeed, the performance of many sites is “poor” in at least one specific area.
Avoiding the 5 pitfalls discussed in the article should be among the first steps toward improving users’ DTC website experience:
- Not Highlighting Core Product and Brand Features
- Favoring On-Site Product Reviews over Social Media and Other External Review Sources
- Having Too-Many Navigation Layers (i.e., “Intermediary Category Pages”)
- Not Providing a “Best Sellers” Category
- Not Combining Product Variations
For inspiration on other sites’ implementations and to see how they perform UX-wise, head to the publicly available part of the DTC benchmark. Here you can browse the Direct-to-Consumer website implementations of all 36 benchmarked sites.
Getting access: all 400+ DTC UX guidelines are available today via Baymard Premium access. (If you already have an account open the DTC study.)