Have you ever noticed that online shopping is nothing (and I mean nothing) like the real thing?

One can argue that this is a victory for consumers – that the terrestrial retail model has been broken for a long time (e.g. long lines, attitude from the service clerk, lack of expert guidance, etc.); however, I’d suggest that many online retailers are missing small, but important and often intangible cues that could make the digital shopping experience go from good to great.

Don’t get me wrong, the best online retailers today which include Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, Fresh Direct, William Sonoma, etc. have mastered ease of use and simplicity. The checkout process is often seamless and use of the semantic Web, albeit very limited, has made shopping more intelligent and intuitive. But, most online retailers still haven’t captured the essence of shopping which can be fun, surprising and even inspiring.

In the terrestrial world, stores like H&M create distinct ambiances for their customers. Music vibrates from in-ceiling speakers and there’s an intangible vibe that makes you want to touch, feel and experience the clothing. Whole Foods offers passerby’s tasters from boutique brands and organic and green products that make you feel good about spending $200 on groceries. Bicycle shops have the smell of rubber tires and the glistening shimmer of shiny painted metal objects.

Yet, when we traverse to the online shopping experience, we find ourselves trapped in predominantly 2-D experiences. There is almost no sense of community to help guide you through purchase decisions in real-time (I’m not referring to message boards or user reviews), little to no curation of products and the vibe is often flat and forgettable. Again, try to divorce yourself from the best-in-class e-tailers like Amazon and iTunes and look across the spectrum of the Web.

One Web site that breaks with convention and stands out because of its niche in the marketplace, curation of products and overall sensibility is 20ltd.com. The site offers limited edition, super-expensive and lux products that can only be found on this site.

20ltd.com is incredibly focused and simple, the aesthetic is sexy (looks like a black-velvet jewel box with gems inside) and the music selection is always fab. Everything is handcrafted – handpicked for the user. While 20ltd’s user-experience is unique to that particular brand, they’ve effectively picked up on some of the hidden cues that make shopping fun, surprising and inspiring.

With this in mind, here are a few simple pointers to help you improve your overall online shopping experience immediately:

  • Create community. Let shoppers know who’s in the online store and what they’re shopping for through traffic mapping. Form partnerships with Chat providers (e.g., AIM, iChat, etc.) and allow shoppers to talk with other like-minded individuals in the store while their shopping. This can also be extended to video-chat for bleeding edge retailers.
  • Incorporate sound design and music. Ambience can stimulate purchase intent and invite shoppers to linger and browse. This aspect of shopping is being woefully neglected across the board.
  •  Curate your ‘storefront window’ (the homepage). Make sure your merchandising strategy is in perpetual motion and never allow inventory to linger on the homepage.
  • Create more three-dimensional experiences.
  • Use the semantic aspects of the Web. Make the user feel like you know and under his/her needs. Create a system that gets smarter with each interaction.
  • Above all else, follow basic User Interface design principals. Big, clickable “Buy This Now” buttons should be placed in the upper right hand corner of the screen (we read from left to right) and always manage user experectations (e.g., this is a three step purchasing process. You’re in step 1 of 3).