Don't Drop That Shopping Cart!

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We have all read those statistics about two out of three or three out of four shoppers abandoning their online shopping carts.


The Yankee Group, Boston, estimates that 77 percent of online shoppers have abandoned a shopping cart at one time or another. We have also read projections and forecasts about the zillions of dollars potentially lost as a result. Now the focus of many online merchants is shifting to techniques to fix this most immediate and grievous e-tailing problem.


Everyone knows that a tiny percentage of those who visit sites actually end up in the shopping cart. Given the very low number of potential converts, each must be considered and treated like a gift from God. If you are lucky enough to get somebody to put something in a cart or a bag and proceed to checkout, the focus shifts to the mechanics of checking out.


If customers think it is too hard to find things, too confusing or unclear what to do next, they bail out in frustration. Similarly, if shoppers cannot shop anonymously, are bushwhacked with shipping costs late in the process, or if they cannot change quantities or toggle among items easily, they quit in anger. The task is to give online shoppers an experience better than they are used to in the real world.


Remember that they are shopping online to avoid invisible or snotty sales people, long lines, out-of-stock inventory, bait-and-switch pricing, mall parking and all the other factors that make retail shopping so much fun.


There is considerable evidence that we have succeeded in making virtual shopping as confusing and as annoying as it is in the real world. In a survey conducted by The Yankee Group, one in every three shoppers who abandoned his cart found the site too hard to navigate. One in five said his order did not go through. One in six was either baffled by the order form or could not figure out how to use his discount or coupon. And so they all booked.


It never ceases to amaze me how difficult it is to get technology to replicate simple, human interactions. There ought to be a law of nature covering this. Maybe somebody like Gordon E. Moore, Intel co-founder and chairman emeritus, or Vinton G. Cerf, co-designer of the transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) and the architecture of the Internet, as well as senior vice president of Internet architecture and technology at WorldCom, has already coined one. But if not, permit me to be so bold as to propose Flamberg's First Law of Frustration: The technology needed to replicate human behavior is inversely proportional to the simplicity and elegance of human thought or action.


The issue of shopping cart abandonment rests on two critical variables: effective user interface design and technology deployment in service to customer psychology. To that end, I have been studying my retail clients' log files to understand where the bumps are.


In assembling a shopping cart, you have to get and keep four things clear and right:


• What has actually been placed in the cart.


• What the individual item and total running price is.


• How it will be paid for.


• Where it is being shipped.


Then you have to offer a way to take stuff out, change quantities or change your mind entirely. The task is complicated by the need to break these steps, normally processed instantly in your head, into logical, sequential component parts while simultaneously reminding you of where you are in the process. When you realize that an awful lot of e-commerce takes place at work with the phone ringing, conversations flowing and work intruding, you begin to grasp the magnitude of the task.


Add to that a general anxiety or uncertainty about whether you left clicked, right clicked, double clicked on purpose or by accident, or whether what you wanted or intended to do actually registered on the site. When designing an online shopping experience, you are heading toward the corner where ergonomics meets paranormal psychology.


Set tough parameters. Insist that checking out take three steps or less. If you can find a way to get it onto one page, all the better. Be sure that shipping prices are presented before items are in the cart. Never allow an out-of-stock item into a shopping basket. Do your cross-selling and upselling before customers get into the checkout cycle. Keep the graphics on checkout pages ultra light so that the send-and-return cycle moves quickly.


Think like a merchant. The customers have been shopping your site, matching hopes and dreams with merchandise. Now they want to get the booty home. Speed counts. Do not encumber them with anything that does not move the process along. Think about how quickly a long, slow checkout line of merchandise-laden consumers can turn into mayhem. The same people are checking out on your site. Use clear signs to cue shoppers where and how to check out.


Remember who is shopping. The majority of shoppers are women. They are not the computer geeks who built your site. They are not necessarily comfortable with the technology. They need visible reinforcement that things are working. They respond to common, everyday words. They are not sure how to go backward, toggle among functions or change quantities, colors or sizes. And they are not likely to be paying rapt attention to your instructions or your mouse type.


Group like functions. The greatest number of defections in the checkout process comes at the beginning. Too many shoppers are unclear about what is actually in their bags or they get bollixed up trying to change things. Clearly identify what has been requested. Use large, bold graphics. Do not assume that shoppers know to scroll up or down or to click on arrows. Tell them and show them explicitly how to change quantities, sizes or colors. Add a big button that says "Change" next to each item. Offer choices for shipping companies and shipping rates. Make it easy to calculate costs and taxes. Assume shoppers will make key entry errors. Gently coach them through these irritating and frustrating moments by making error messages friendly and forgiving. Also make them big, not just red, so shoppers see what is wrong quickly and easily.


Enable anonymous shopping. In a store, cash buyers are completely unknown to merchants. Lots of people like it that way. When registration or log-in is early in the checkout sequence, many people bail out. They know that you do not need that information. And they are not about to give it up. And even when they are, they will give you the absolute minimum and expect the process to be very quick. Gather your data elsewhere or on the back end. Stick to critical shipping addresses, credit card numbers and data necessary to protect against fraud.


Call "confirmation" something else. The second-largest abandonment point is the confirmation stage. Tens of thousands of shoppers cannot distinguish between a pre-sale confirmation and a post-sale receipt. As a result, they get all the way through the process and never hit a button that consummates the sale. As many as half do not even realize they have to do something else to complete the sale. They assume the computer knows what they want to do. Afterward they complain that they never got the stuff they ordered.


Change the language and the sequence. If you present a final confirmation page, add a large button that reads, "Click here to pay now." On the subsequent page write, "Thanks for your order. Here is your receipt." Mirror the offline experience.


Lest you think the shoppers in cyberspace are morons, take heart. Abandonment by repeat buyers is four times less than newbies. All we have to do is help enough of them get through their first checkout experience to build a tolerance and patience for a second or third go-round.


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