To Shopping Cart or not to Shopping Cart?

Shopping carts have become a ubiquitos concept on the Web. It seems that everyone from mom and pop stores to huge corporations have shopping carts on their web sites. Everywhere you shop online, each site has its own little handbasket for you to drop its products off in.

The other day a new start-up company asked me for advice on their Web site. Specifically, they wanted to know if they needed to install a shopping cart, and if it would help with their sales.

This brings up a really interesting point that many sites should look into. Are shopping carts really necessary? In what situations do they help, and in which do they hinder? Most importantly, do they really increase sales?

To answer this question appropriately, I had to take a close and careful look at what their site was selling, who the target audience is, and why they are browsing the Web site. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a given fact that every online store needs a shopping cart, and the misapplication of shopping carts can actually have a disastrous effect on sales.

Too often sales are lost because of shopping carts and the online check-out procedure. According to some statistics, up to 75% of customers who shop online regularly abandon their purchases when confronted with complicated check-out forms. This phenomenon is known as shopping cart abandonment. Though well-intentioned, shopping carts can add a lot of confusion and hassle to a process Web users are already potentially uncomfortable with. To use the marketing terminology, they muck up your sales path! Consider the following flaws in most shopping carts:

  1. Design; shopping carts are confusing! They have lots of different components, lots of forms, and it’s not always clear what does what, no matter how boldly you’ve labeled something.
  2. Hassle; online e-commerce check-out procedures are getting longer and longer. Sometimes it’s just easier, quicker, and less of a hassle to get an item elsewhere.
  3. Too personal; when was the last time you were asked for your home address when buying something from a real-world store? Well, you give out a lot more than that every time you fill in a check-out form online. That scares people, and rightfully so!

On the other hand, there are legitimate arguments for why you would want to install a shopping cart in your store.

  1. It’s familiar. Some visitors are so used to online shopping carts that they feel strange placing an order from a site without one. In short, a shopping cart can add legitimacy to your online business, ironically by making it seem like a bigger or more sophisticated corporation than it really is.
  2. It encourages browsing. By placing an item “in your shopping cart” you can return to it later.

There are both pros and cons to using a shopping cart. In order to use a cart effectively, and certainly before you spend the time and money installing one, you must make an informed decision as to why you think you need it in the first place.

Shopping carts typically work best in situations where a site is offering lots of varied items for sale and where these items are products rather than services. This is why sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, and Sony use shopping carts. They benefit because the shopping cart offers a means for customers to “bookmark” items they are interested yet still continue searching for other products that might be better suited to their personal needs.

There are two major cases where shopping carts typically hinder a visitor rather than help them, however. The first is in the case where a site is offering a very specialized or specific niche service and/or product. The second is when there is only a very small number of services and/or products available for sale.

Take, for example, the case of DressYourCurves.com, nice folks who offer personalized fasion advice. Each of their services is extremely specific. If I’m at their site, there can only be a few things I’m looking for and each of those involve getting fasion advice (something I probably need, though they only offer advice for women). Since they offer a small number of very specific services, there’s no need for a shopping cart, and indeed it would only slow down the process by which I pay and get my advice! DressYourCurves.com thus meets the criteria of both of these cases where a shopping cart is unnecessary.

The bottom line is, shopping carts can be an obstacle rather than a convenience if you use them improperly or in the wrong places. Before you go installing one think carefully about how your average visitor will feel about using it and what using it will mean to the overall shopping experience you are trying to convey.

Whether or not it is a good idea to install a shop in your online store will ultimately be a judgement call. Sometimes it’s really a far better option to devise your own purchase pages so that you can keep them as simple and direct as you can. If you do decide to install a cart, make sure it’s one that you can easily customize in order to fit it as innocuosly as possible into your site’s sales path. Many carts offer the ability to customize their look and feel, but this is often not as simple as they make it seem. To date, the best shopping cart and e-commerce solution available (in my humble opinion) is osCommerce.

And while I’m on the subject, I’d be very interested to hear about both good and bad experiences you may have had with shopping carts.

May all your visitors be customers and may all your customers be repeat visitors! Good luck!