does not allow guest checkouts

As I was reviewing the checkout process for a variety of ecommerce sites a few years ago, I found that no longer offered the option to checkout without registration. I vaguely remember that they did allow guest checkout at one time, but it had been years since I did my first checkout with them and of course I do not regularly pretend to be a first time shopper on their site. So I was mildly surprised to see that they no longer offer this option. This is often promoted as a must have for ecommerce sites and yet, here is arguably the most prominent ecommerce site, if not one of the largest, and they require users to register in order to checkout.


Never signed out

Before we try to answer questions about why they no longer follow a “best practice” for allowing ecommerce guest checkouts, let’s examine not only how their registration works, but also some other aspects of how they manage a user’s presence on their site. To start, I basically wanted to act like I was a first time visitor to their site by making sure I was logged out and removed any amazon related cookies.

sign out by clicking the not you link
As an existing customer of amazon, you may have noticed that there is no clear sign out link or button on amazon. You need to click on the “Not [yourname]” link, which will sign out your current user and take you to the sign in screen. If you don’t do that, they maintain your identity as well as your recent activity on the site pretty much forever. Of course, for the purpose of security, to access/change any account details you will have to enter your password after 15 minutes of inactivity.

Cart management

The fact that you are never actually fully signed out is something to note, as it allows amazon to make your experience using their site more consistent. This includes maintaining any items you have placed in the cart. They actually have a very sophisticated cart that saves items you may have placed automatically after an extended period of time. No need to worry about accidentally buying something you put in the cart 1 week ago. However, you also don’t have to worry about the item being lost because you forgot to save it as a wish list/favorite or something similar.

The betterizer allows you to tell amazon what you would like to see more of
Beyond keeping track of your cart items, it also provides amazon a way of building a marketing profile based on your use of the site. They can make personalized promotions and feature products that are related to items you have viewed previously. While the actual relevancy may be questioned if you were researching gifts or other one time items, it is still a better place to start than a completely unrelated homepage. You can actually go in and indicate items that will help them make things more relevant by marking those as gift purchases or tell them to simply not include a purchase for recommendations. There is also a whole other area called betterizer that allows you to indicate selections that you like and would want to see related items.

First timers

So to get a truly first time experience you will need to delete your amazon cookies. Once you have done that, you can browse around and add a one or more items to your cart. When you decide to proceed to checkout you will see the familiar sign in page. In this case we are going to follow the new customer path. If you try this yourself, you will need an alternative email address to get started, because amazon checks to see if your email address is already linked to an account.

amazon registration screen

Having entered a fresh email address, we can now see the amazon registration page, which we must fill out in order to continue. It is really very minimal, so they keep the barrier as low as possible. They require a name, which it is left to the user to decide if they want to enter only their first name, their whole name, or possibly a pseudonym, as there is no indication of the format expected. They then require you to re-enter the email address as a check that you have not made an error in the original entry. This is followed by an optional phone number field and then the required password setting fields. Again dual entry for the password is required to guard against mistyping. If they had wanted to make the registration simpler, it is arguable whether the extra email field is needed and then the only other fields that could be removed are the name and phone number field. I am sure they may have tested those or had sufficient internal reasons for placing those fields on the form.

An experience evolved

If you were checking out, you will be sent directly to the first checkout page to enter your addresses. Otherwise, if you were just creating an account to have one, you are directed to the betterizer page. The betterizer, as mentioned previously, allows you to tell amazon what would be better, more relevant recommendations and probably deserves an entire article to cover the impact it has on the user experience. Suffice it to say that it plays a part of the required registration success for their site.

Ultimately, I think the main thing to keep in mind is that amazon is not constraining itself to “best practices”. They are evolving the user experience of their site in ways that align to their business goals and users’ goals at the same time. Amazon may also benefit from being the largest ecommerce site, in that, at this point it is possible there are a relatively small number of users who do not already have an account. That is at least in the US, where I was doing this analysis. I do not know if they provide a guest checkout option in other countries which would be newer markets for them.

It can be argued that to give a better user experience overall, amazon believes there is greater value to force users to register. However, they are not just simply making users register so that they can send emails and make crude attempts at showing the users items related to their purchases. They have created a sophisticated cart and provided some great features in the betterizer and improve recommendations pages that allow users to have control over that experience… If they decide they don’t like what they see.

In closing, this also serves as a caution that amazon does things that are best from their perspective and may not work equally well in your business. Copying an ecommerce feature from amazon is not an effective UX strategy, as you are not likely going to be able to do all the other things they have done to make such a feature work for them. Unless, that is, you spend a similar amount of time and effort to ensure it will meet the needs of your site’s users. In general, it is not always beneficial to copy any other organization’s UX, even your competitors, especially if you are not similar in size and presence.

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