Sally’s finger hovered over the “Purchase” button. After hours of online sleuthing, she was pretty sure the green chair would complete her living room. It was the style and color she wanted, home delivery was guaranteed within three days, she had money in the bank to pay for it, and both the website and this particular chair appeared to be highly rated by customers. But Sally hesitated. Maybe she would take one more look at the local furniture outlet.
This fictional example is all too common. Global e-commerce sales exceeded $2 trillion in 2017, and are on pace to more than double by 2021. Yet average online conversion rates have remained doggedly low: Fewer than 4% of consumers arriving from desktop browsers buy, and the number is lower still for tablet and smartphone users (3% and 1%, respectively). These are a far cry from offline retail conversion rates, estimated to be 20%–40%.
Consumer behavior research suggests that trust is essential to forming an intention to purchase. When trust is high, people are much more likely to take risks and engage in trade. In traditional business contexts, trust emerges and evolves in a physical space, and between two or more people interacting in person. But in the e-commerce setting, a prospective customer usually does not have any such contact, and so they must rely entirely on the digital experience. So, how exactly does consumer trust emerge online?