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Store locator usability: problems and best practices, part 3

by Mike B. Fisher on October 16, 2009

Quick Summary: In part 1 and part 2 of this article we looked at the ways in which store locators leave users frustrated, and we explored ways to address the problems.  In the third part of this article we look at some additional best practices and touch upon a few special considerations.

Continuing on with our look at store locator best practices, it’s also sensible to:

Prioritize the information customers are most likely to need. In most situations, customers looking for a store will need one or more of the following:

  • Street address (including city and state)
  • Telephone numbers
  • Hours of operation
  • Any important differentiators (e.g. – retail store versus a warehouse, a location with special services, etc.)

Sometimes it’s also helpful to include:

  • A mention of nearby landmarks (“just 1 block East of the freeway”)
  • Brief special instructions if applicable (“parking available in back”)

… and naturally some customers may also (or instead) wish to see a map. So the structure of store locator results should make it easy to see any of this information without unnecessary extra steps. The store locators from OfficeMax and Staples that I showed in Part 2 of this article do just that; they give users the basic information about each nearby store, then make it easy to see a map and/or get driving directions. This is a good balance.  Store locators that display giant maps and don’t include the other information listed above – or include it but make it hard to find – aren’t helping themselves or their customers.

Some companies also need to differentiate the services offered at each location. Websites like Home Depot list specialists who work at each store (e.g. – “John Smith, master plumber”); this is a great idea since it anticipates and addresses a possible customer question “Does anyone at that location know about plumbing?”.

Offer to email or text directions. Some users may wish to keep the directions and other information on their mobile device or in an email account. It may be beneficial for them to have an option to email or text the store information. This is still a relatively uncommon practice, but it’s growing in popularity. It’s a great idea. One place I’ve seen it is on bank store locator functions that use a third-party application called LocatorSearch. Here’s a screen shot from the LocatorSearch demo:

The option to send store information to a phone is an excellent convention.

The option to send store information to a phone is an excellent convention.

As you see, each bank location includes an overview with the address and services available and a option to “Send to Phone”. What I don’t see here is a telephone number, but this is presumably something that can be added by the individual financial institutions that use the software.

Provide good error handling. It bears mention that applications and websites should always provide clear and specific feedback when users encounter an error. Yet, some store locators fail to deliver on this basic requirement. The PetSmart store locator, while generally very good, doesn’t have much to say when no stores are available in a particular ZIP code:

PetSmart's generally good store locator doesn't say enough when it can't find a nearby store.

PetSmart's generally good store locator doesn't say enough when it can't find a nearby store.

Just as websites can be more helpful when an item is out of stock,  store locators can also provide helpful and usable feedback when a customer attempts to locate a store in an area that doesn’t have one. In the cases depicted above, a better solution would be to show an obvious and more conversational statement such as “Sorry, there are no stores within 20 miles of zip code xxx. Our nearest store is 35 miles from this zip code and is displayed below.”

Be sure the information is current. This is another suggestion that falls under the “obviously!” category, but it’s important to ensure that as company locations change the store locator database is kept current. More than once I’ve heard stories of people getting out of date addresses from a store locator and going on a wild goose chase. It’s easy to see why this would be an especially frustrating experience for customers.

A related problem: distributor/retailer locator

A different but related problem can be seen with companies that sell only through distributors and other channel partners, and don’t have their own retail locations.

Customers may come to these websites wondering “Where can I buy your products?”; naturally it makes sense to address this question. It’s a mistake for companies to assume that only trade professionals or large-scale retail buyers will encounter their website.

Here’s an example from a company that makes industrial lubricants. Some of their products are of interest to consumers (for example automotive and woodworking hobbyists), but their product lines are typically sold only through third party industrial supply companies such as WW Grainger.

The LPS “Distributor Locator” looks like this:

LPS' distributor map doesn't have much to say when it can't find a distributor.

LPS' distributor map doesn't provide useful feedback when it can't find a distributor.

The large map isn’t clickable.  If the user enters a zip code where there’s no distributor, the page simply refreshes without displaying an error message. Oops. I think what they’re trying to say is “Sorry, we don’t know of a distributor near you where you can find our products.”

But as I mentioned above LPS sells many of its products through WW Grainger, which has a large e-commerce storefront. And even has merchants who sell LPS products. Even if there’s no “Distributor” nearby there are alternative ways to purchase LPS products. Since the website doesn’t mention this, they’re needlessly turning customers away.

Wrapping up: store locator usability

As we’ve seen from the examples in each part of this article there are many ways to make store locators more usable and generally more functional. The key requirements are:

  • An easy to find locator function (preferably on the Home and other key pages)
  • A simple and robust entry form that can accept a wide range of inputs
  • An easy way to search a second time if needed
  • Finding a good and usable balance between text information and maps
  • A focus on prioritizing the information users are most likely to need and want
  • The use of good, flexible third-party mapping applications
  • Accurate and current information

Ensuring your store locator meets these criteria will make it easier and faster for customers to find your stores, and should enable them to arrive there in a mood to buy rather than curse your website.

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Related posts:

  1. Store locator usability: problems and best practices, part 2
  2. Store locator usability: problems and best practices
  3. Reduce costs and improve usability with visual standards, part 1

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Part 2 | Usability and User Experience | Store locator problems and best practices
April 20, 2011 at 9:19 pm

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

ArleyM July 6, 2010 at 6:55 am

Great article!

I’d love to see some examples of the very best and very worst you’ve seen.

Mike B. Fisher July 6, 2010 at 9:25 am

Thanks Arley. I may do a “Regrettable User Experience” article about store locators at some point. There’s no shortage of bad examples. I’ve cited a few examples of the good ones in the article, but very few websites get all of the elements right. More often they do one or two things well and miss the mark in other ways.

Amy February 8, 2011 at 9:10 am

I want to have different icons for online resellers and storefronts–or those who sell online and at a retail location. If they are online, it might not matter where they are located. I use WordPress. Is there a way to have multiple icons differentiating online, storefront, both?


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