Online Shopping is Broken

I want to run a brief thought experiment if you’ll indulge me. I want you to think about buying clothing online and try to relate this to shopping in-store. Let’s say you need a new shirt. You navigate to your favorite outfitter much in the same way (but simpler) that you would walk to the nearest outlet. You browse the site by clicking through links and looking for things you like, similar to how you would walk through a store, scanning for something that catches your eye. So far, the online experience sounds very similar to in-store, if not better.
However, here is where the experience goes to shit.
In a store, once you find something you like, you pick it up off the rack, feel the material, hold it up to yourself as a quick size check, grab an adjacent size to be safe, nip into a fitting room to try it on and, if satisfied, head to the checkout. Imagine if we forced this process to match the current online model: all of the clothing would be on a wall behind the checkout and before touching anything, holding it up for sizing or taking things into a fitting room, the store would require full payment.
This is not how people want to shop.
Granted not every online experience follows this model and not all shopping experiences demand the same level of interaction and involvement as clothing. Music, film, books, electronics and other products that do not rely so heavily on look, feel and specific usage have done very well in online retail and in some cases, digital sales have surpassed brick and mortar. However, there are still a number of industries – clothing, food, personal care, furniture, musical instruments to name a few – that for any number of reasons, have yet to become hot tickets for online sale.
At the core, certain purchases need to be experienced first. We need to know how something looks, feels or sounds in-person before we buy it. Some companies have found ways around this, however, many still struggle.  Here are a few suggestions for the online retailers of the world.
Virtual Avatars
In the absence of being able to try clothing on, a digital avatar could be used to show how articles would look on a virtual version of you.  Tesco launched a pilot of such a service earlier in 2012 for women to try their F&F clothing range.  A German company,UPcload, is also working on the same technology and has already started to build a network of retailers across Europe and North America. The technology is getting there, however, the question still remains as to whether people will use this service and more importantly, if it will encourage them to buy.
Product Profiling
A great deal of apprehension around purchasing something online (or in-store for that matter) is knowing whether it will work for you. Finding products that match our personality, style and needs can be a challenging endeavor. If more websites were able to recommend products based on alignment with our individual personalities, people may be more willing to buy things. Recommendation engines have been very successful for products like music, books and movies, so why can other online retailers not take a more personalized approach to their customer and help them navigate the sea of online options? Some sites like Jewelmint and Shoedazzle have attempted this approach, however, it seems that no one has been able to implement this on a larger scale and across a broader set of products.
Free Returns
Perhaps the biggest step forward (though possibly the most difficult to financially justify) would be to allow free, no-hassle returns on items. Better yet, individuals should be able to order whatever they want and after reviewing, only be charged for what they keep. Financial reality has a thing or two to say about this feature, however, for my money, this would definitely encourage my online shopping behaviors.
These are just a few ideas to encourage online shopping. While they may not be overly groundbreaking, they are a far cry more than what the bulk of online retailers are currently doing to encourage customers to buy digitally. E-commerce sites need to step up their game and work to remove some of the frictions of online retail. Do a good enough job at this, and I promise I’ll never buy brick and mortar again.