Craggy Peak Research

Feeling abandoned - why shoppers walk away from carts

Todd Haskell | March 19, 2019

If you're an on-line retailer, you're likely shocked/dismayed/alarmed by how many shoppers come to your site, place something in the virtual shopping cart, but leave your site without making a purchase - a phenomenon commonly called cart abandonment. Estimates of how often this happens vary, but it's common to see figures as high as 75% (here's a list of some of the statistics that have been reported).

Most businesses tend to think about cart abandonment as lost sales. So, it's hardly surprising that there is a broad range of products and services out there that are supposed to turn cart abandonment into conversion. I don't think there needs to be yet another article on that topic, so I'm going to focus on what seems to be missing most of the time - taking a customer-centric perspective on cart abandonment. I'll talk about two things: Is it really reasonable to think about those 75% of carts that get abandoned as lost sales, and how can you address cart abandonment in a way that makes customers love you rather than hate you.

Let's start by considering a bit of a different situation. A few years ago I needed a new roof on my house. I called up three different roofing contractors. They each came out to my house, talked to me, measured the house, and prepared a bid. But I only needed one roof. So that means that from the very beginning, there was a guaranteed average "cart abandonment" rate of 67%. Contractors understand this, and accept it as a cost of doing business in that industry.

Just like with contractors, shoppers often will compare products and prices across several different sites, even if they are only going to make one purchase. And they will often place an item in the virtual shopping cart to make it easier to go back and locate it again later. If they do that on four sites before making a purchase, you've got a 75% cart abandonment rate right there. So from that angle, high rates of cart abandonment are completely natural.

On top of this, shoppers sometimes don't have any intention of making a purchase. To take another example, let's consider the real estate biz. Open houses are a standard way to try to interest potential buyers in a house. But they often attract a range of other people as well - neighbors who are just curious, people who enjoy walking through houses to get ideas or to fantasize. In those cases, the person may be in no financial position to buy a house - meaning zero possibility that their visit to the open house is ever going to turn into a sale. Again, realtors accept this as a cost of doing business in their industry.

If you're an e-tailer, you're in some ways lucky. It doesn't really cost you anything to have people visit your site just to window shop, or to look at products but ultimately buy somewhere else. That's a major advantage not just compared to contractors and realtors but also brick-and-mortar retailers, where a customer may take advantage of a salesperson's time and expertise only to walk down the street and buy from the competition (or buy on-line!).

The reason for talking about all of this is to make it clear that the vast majority of cart abandonment is because a shopper made a conscious choice that they believe is in their best interest. Since that's the case, using heavy-handed techniques to try to reel in customers that have left items in their cart runs the risk of damaging your customer experience - it can easily come across as badgering them.

In my opinion, the best way to deal with cart abandonment is to shift the focus from achieving your goals to helping the customer achieve their goals. For example, you know that customers are going to compare your products with those of your competitors. So, think about what makes your products and your company different from the competition - and I mean not just the pros but the cons as well. Then make that information easily accessible on your site, to facilitate the comparison process.

It's also important to recognize that different shoppers are going to care about different things. If you know you don't have the lowest prices, then you're unlikely to win over the shoppers for whom price is everything. So, who are the shoppers who are willing to spend a little more if they get something for it? And what makes that slightly higher price worth it for them? If you know that, then you are prepared to make a more targeted sales pitch at customers who will actually be receptive to it.

In the end, I think that most cart abandonment is natural and unavoidable, so I'd steer clear of any company that claims they can, say, cut it in half. Even if they're successful, you're probably paying a price for it elsewhere. For example, pushing customers to make a purchase when they really don't want to is likely to elevate your rate of returns. However, that doesn't mean that you can't do better. My advice is to work with the customer rather than viewing them as some sort of prize to be won. Take the time to understand them and their needs and concerns, and make sure you're doing a good job telling an honest story about how your products help meet their needs. This isn't a way to get rich quick, but I believe it's a more sustainable route to long-term business success.