Abandoned Shopping Carts May Be Good News

Opinion: The changing way that customers shop online today prompts Evan Schuman to suggest that retailers must rethink their own strategies.

In the first year or two of e-commerce, one sign of sure trouble was seeing a high number of abandoned shopping carts.

Ive always loved the term "abandoned shopping carts" because its one of the rare examples in technology where the term quite accurately—and explicitly—describes what it means to describe. It refers to a customer who starts to shop, puts some items into a virtual shopping cart and then simply goes away before buying anything.

The early conclusions drawn were that something bad had happened, driving the prospect into the arms of another e-tailer or—egads!—into a brick-and-mortar. The possibility that the prospect had decided that money was too tight and no purchase should be made at all was always dismissed as too horrible a scenario to consider.

Perhaps it was a blue screen of death (Redmonds gift that keeps on giving) or a database error? Maybe the instructions were too complicated or the tender-process kept refusing a legitimate credit card?

/zimages/6/28571.gifTo read more about online sales increasing 20 percent this season, click here.

A couple of years ago, those fears were more often than not correct.

Today, though, an abandoned shopping cart is more likely to indicate a realistic sign of the times. This is not to suggest that technical glitches and site crashes arent still a part of the holiday shopping experience, along with holiday carols playing right after Halloween and bad-tasting eggnog. (Sorry, eggnog lovers, but Im not drinking raw eggs unless I have a hangover. And I fight it, even then. Instead of a gulp of SushiMilk, opt for an eggcream, which should be called the retail marketers drink because it has neither of the two advertised ingredients. But, fully in character, I digress.)

Todays e-commerce customers are probably comparison-shopping so they will leave eight or nine abandoned shopping carts around while making their decisions. Another likely explanation today is the "Ill analyze and narrow down my choices today and come back next week and make decisions."

The decision-process might look like this: A customer decided that she wants to purchase a coffee-bean burr grinder. But which one? Shell look into quite a few choices, read a bunch of reviews and will then go to her favorite merchant and drop three or four acceptable options into her cart. She can now return to her day, knowing that when she decides that she will now make that purchase, she wont have to recreate the research. She can quickly go to her cart and make her decision then.

/zimages/6/28571.gifWith armies of seasonal employees on retail floors, beware what they may tell customers. Best Buy learned the hard way. Click here.

Another common use: Someone will grab appropriate gifts for various friends, relatives and children of same as they come upon them throughout the year. Then, as various events crop up, then can go to their cart and make some quick decisions.

Instead of resisting this trend and dismissing those non-instant-buyers as dastardly shopping-cart abandoning bandits, why not embrace them? Offer shopping-cart compartment-like folders, so that a folder of possible gifts for cousin Mikey can be easily found? Perhaps it can be combined with birthday or anniversary reminders?

Encouraging this kind of shopping-cart behavior could be a bonanza to your CRM efforts, similar to traditional wishlists and wedding registries.

Ive been waiting for some aggressive retailer to save the lists of people who buy wedding registry items, match it with regional hospital records and send e-mails suggesting newborn baby gifts and then one-year-old gifts. Hey, its a cut-throat retail world out there.

Some retailers are already looking at abandoned shopping carts as golden opportunities to e-mail special discounts if theyll come back and make those purchases within 48 hours. That could be a mixed-blessing. It might discourage some customers who dont like the idea of their store looking through their personal cart.

They know they do it, but an in-your-face e-mail might be forcing them to think about it. You want them to continue to use their cart for shopping intent as well as for immediate purchases. Theres also the risk of rewarding customers for not buying immediately.

Next Page: In God we trust. All others must use plastic.