E-commerce has reached a tipping point. More than half of consumers now prefer to shop online, and e-commerce sales are growing by 23 percent annually. The $6.59 billion spent last Cyber Monday was the single largest online shopping total in history.

Yet despite all the activity online, 46 percent of American small businesses still don't have their own website. And even when they do, the experience on many sites is underwhelming at best.

Falling short online is both a lost opportunity and a long-term liability. Any business that hopes to thrive--or even survive--must make an instantly appealing impression online, which requires a laser focus on the user experience.

The User Experience Creates the Brand Perception

The user experience is not a minor or irrelevant feature of your e-commerce site. Rather, it is the factor that has the single biggest impact on customer satisfaction, conversion rates, and ongoing revenues.

There are lots of things that degrade the user experience--slow load times, confusing navigation tools, broken landing pages, cumbersome checkout processes, and more. Any of these issues is annoying in the moment, but the consequences linger long after.

Unsatisfied customers are far more likely to order fewer items--or even abandon their shopping cart altogether. They may complain to a customer service rep, who then has to apologize repeatedly for the same inexcusable website issues.

Even after lodging a complaint, frustrated customers are apt to vent to friends and family and spread a negative image of your brand.

To fend off this attack on your bottom line, you first need to acknowledge the issue. Then you have to do everything possible to provide a perfect user experience for every user every time.

Upgrading the User Experience From Every Angle

There is no one-size-fits-all way to improve the user experience. Rather, companies must explore the present strengths and weaknesses of their e-commerce sites and make the kinds of improvements that matter most to today's users. To do this for your site, follow these steps:

1. Audit your website

Systematically scouring your website for issues and obstacles will likely turn up more of them than you expect. A study of 80 major retailers' websites revealed the average load time was 16.6 seconds on desktop--a wait no retailer wants. Until you investigate your site for errors, there is no way to know when, where, or why they exist.

2. Upgrade the look

Unless a professional designer collaborated on the current design of your website, it likely has design issues. With 21 percent of Americans reporting that confusing and ugly websites are frustrating to shop on, a poorly designed site is untenable. Attractive fonts, backgrounds, icons, and buttons all make sites more aesthetically and functionally appealing.

3. Ask for feedback

When actual customers endorse a product in the form of a review or rating, it validates that product more than any piece of advertising could. Up to 69 percent of consumers want more reviews on websites, and accommodating feedback in all forms will help your company appear open and authentic.

4. Use visual storytelling

Relying on images and video to explain a product is a way to bridge the gap for consumers who can't touch and see it in person. As many as 30 percent of consumers want more videos on websites, and 73 percent of those consumers are more likely to purchase a product after watching a related video.

5. Make things easy

People are familiar and comfortable with the modes of online shopping pioneered by online giants like Amazon and Zappos. According to Ryan Gellis, founder and CEO of Robofirm, an inventive design is totally acceptable--as long as the fundamentals stay simple and users can navigate in the way they expect.

6. Offer virtual assistance

Providing around-the-clock service with human support staff is impractical, but forcing confused customers to fend for themselves is unacceptable. Implementing chatbots and other AI-enabled tools is a way to offer on-demand assistance 24/7.

7. Optimize for mobile

In 2016, 20.6 percent of all online e-commerce activity happened on mobile, and by 2020 that figure will reach 45 percent. Any site that is not optimized for mobile is simply alienating users on the platform they are most inclined to use.

There are few e-commerce sites that can claim to offer something 100 percent original or exclusive. That means when the user experience is lacking, consumers will eagerly and easily seek out the competition. But it also means when the user experience is perfect in every way, an e-commerce site can succeed in rising above the others.