The Myth of the Abandoned Cart

Abandoned Shopping CartIt was a dank and dreary afternoon. The parking lot was quiet. The few sounds were the buzzing from the flickering street lamp and the soft patter of the raindrops on the plastic seat flap in the front of the shopping cart.

The staff at the store was pretty light. And it was raining, no need to go grab that cart from where it was abandoned. It didn’t even belong to the store, it had the logo of the grocery store across the lot.

The salesperson looked out at the cart, thinking about it. What drew it all the way over here? What was the shopper doing bringing it here, and then just leaving it there? It seemed to creep closer, each time the clerk looked away and then back. Was the wheel turned that way just moments ago?

Just then a car splashed by and parked in the spot next to the cart. The driver got out and dodging the cart, trotted to the store to get out of the rain. There he grabbed a different cart, ignoring the one he had just passed.

What is it with abandoned carts?

Well that’s the question of the decade, isn’t it? I’m not talking about the wet ones in the parking lot that likely have kid snot on the handles and 3 days of fliers plastered to the far back, covering the annoying glamor shot of your top selling local Realtor in yet another onslaught of advertising property. I’m talking about online abandoned ecommerce carts.

Cart Abandonment

Marketers can hardly go a day without reading some expert or thought leader going on about how you suck as a marketer or ecommerce lead if your carts are abandoned, and clearly it means there’s something wrong with your tools, your site, your messaging, etc.

  • Your check out is too clumsy.
  • Your shipping is too confusing.
  • Your steps are out of order.
  • Your technology is outdated.
  • You’re missing your reviews.
  • There’s no up-sell or point of purchase opportunity.

The underlying message is the same,

Your carts are abandoned because you failed.

I’m here to say that’s a load of marketing horseshit and mostly spewed by junior title-ups (those who got titles instead of raises when the senior knowledgeable types where “attritioned” out, per the new career lexicon of the millennial economy).

Now before I go further, the above bullet points may be true, so you should check them, just as you check to see if your computer is plugged in before calling tech support.

Crap. I’m old, there are no plugs these days, except on chargers. Ok, let me rephrase … that your device is fully charged prior to accessing online automated help interactions.

If you have any worth as an ecommerce and/or marketing person, you check the above issues, of course. But this whole fascination with the abandoned cart, and “reclaiming your lost sales” is so off the mark it has spurred a reaction in me. It’s time to stop perpetuating this pathetic myth which began innocently enough as a tactic, and then became a rally call to aggressively hunt down shoppers and condition them to change their behavior by leaving things in online carts to await an email with a coupon in it.

The problem is, the original interpretation was off. It was wrong.

Shopping and buying are not synonyms.

I’ll say that again because I know a lot of you are confused. Shopping and buying are not synonyms. Shopping and buying are both verbs and involve interacting with some sort of retail environment, but they are not the same thing.

Chances are if you’re male you think these words are the same. By the same token if you’re female, you understand that these words mean different things at different times under different circumstances.

So now if you’re a marketer, or an ecommerce business, how do you translate the current lingo? Online shopping, mobile shopping, shopping cart conversions, etc.

Go to your business news source of choice and see how many articles you can find about shopping behavior and abandoned carts. Most will tell you that these numbers need to be controlled and the higher the number the more it means you don’t understand your customer’s behavior. They offer simple tricks to make conversions and improve your business overall.

And they work, they really do, with some customers. But the bigger question is, does it work with your shoppers. To answer that you need to know your customers’ behavior, and you need to understand the concept of shopping.

Again, shopping and buying are not the same thing. Shopping, according to behavior, is the act of considering products for purchase, be it at the mall, downtown, online or through a catalog. The activity can be done alone or with others.

Shopping and not buying something is not a fault, it’s a normal behavior.

Shoppers enter stores all the time and enter without purchases. They try things on, considering different options, put things back and then looking around some more. It’s part of the purchasing decision.

Catalog shoppers have done this for years, taking the newly arrived catalog, turning down pages or marking items of interest, and then returning later to review. After that list is whittled down then some shoppers would actually fill out the order form, total everything up and then pare down some more. Even then, it wasn’t a clear point that an order would be made.

The difference with digital shopping is that you can see into the decision-making process. All of a sudden abandoned carts, which are similar to the returns racks in dressing rooms, the in-store department returns in grocery or department stores, or put aside catalog order form, are identified with a particular shopper. The issue is when businesses view this shopper as a lost buyer, or a failed sale. It’s not. It’s just a shopper.

An abandoned cart is not necessarily a lost buyer or a failed sale!

Sending abandoned cart emails is probably the best enticement to convert a shopper to a buyer in the case of an abandoned cart. This is part of the purchasing process. Much like returning later to the catalog list to decide, with a clearer head, what is actually wanted, the abandoned cart email serves as a reminder to check the list.

Similarly an offer in the cart, after a period of time (based on time spent on site or cart views) could also be a strong motivator to commit to the purchase.

What probably ISN’T a good idea is taking apart your path-to-purchase process to find the errors or breakdowns, or reviewing your entire operational, merchandising and marketing approach to find errors that probably aren’t there, or aren’t worth the time and effort to overhaul based on a lame marketing report (or a hundred others seeming to back it up but are all based on the original misinterpretation!)

The errors are in the interpretations alone.

Abandoned carts are a natural part of shopping. Ask any brick-and-mortar retailer how many shoppers actually buy in the store, and how many put things back. You’ll find it’s typically MUCH higher than the number who actually purchase (depending upon the type of retailer.)

(This is also true for those shoppers who spend time on your site but never add something to the cart … they’re called window shoppers in the real world, remember them?)

So to all you marketers, thought leaders, business folk developing in-bound marketing content to draw in customers who are “leaving sales on the table with abandoned cart rates”, stop. Stop it right now.

And start thinking!

You can’t tell a client that they’re leaving 80% of sales in the carts through their lack of ability, and then not convert those with your own strategies and tactics without pissing them off.

Be honest. Tell them yes, you can convert some, but you need to understand your customers, and your customer’s customers.

Understand the behavior, not just the data. Data isn’t behavior.


About Laurissa Doonan

I'm a marketer. I've been a professional marketer for over 25 years, but in reality, I have always been one. Marketing to me is about communicating effectively, regardless of platform, regardless of channel. Marketing is understanding both your objectives and your audience, and finding the right method and message for your customers to reach them where they are. Now I dedicate my efforts to helping very small and small companies pursue their passions and grow their businesses through marketing; providing agency trained expertise without the overhead.
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