The attitudes of consumers to the whole process of shopping online is causing E-retailers a major headache. Figures being bandied about in the industry talk of 25% of shoppers abandoning their shopping carts at the checkout. Some even say that this is a gross under-statement. So why are people cutting and running?

Time — or the lack of it — could be one factor. And online isn’t the only industry where this impacts. If the queues are too long at a high street store, or if the service is unbelievably slow, many are giving in to the temptation to walk out.

But online shoppers, instead of being wooed, are often coralled, cajoled into moving on swiftly and then penalised if they don’t. It’s a bit like making a reservation at a restaurant and being told that it needs the table back in two hours. Really makes one feel like a valued customer.

On too many sites you get timed out,” says Jo Evans, managing director of IMRG, a collaborative community dedicated to maximising the commercial potential of electronic shopping. “So around Christmas, when you are buying for three or four people, after half an hour is gone they clear your basket.

Phone distractions

“It’s so frustrating. This is my business and I’m on the Internet all the time, but you can get distracted by a telephone call or an urgent email — and by the time you return to the page the basket is empty. So you quietly swear under your breath and go to another website.”
It’s easy to under-estimate the complexity of providing a smooth operation for those who want to order goods or services on the web, but then that’s the problem of the site owner. It’s the consumer at the sharp end whose penalised for their inadequacies.

Google is one company which is trying to make things easier. Its reseach had revealed that people had a multitude of concerns at checkout. So, since most shoppers start their process with a search, it launched its own service enabling them to buy from participating retailers using a single Google log-in. It now has thousands of stores globally on its books, including Vodafone,, ebuyer and Goldsmiths.

“Users no longer have to remember multiple passwords, or navigate new and unfamiliar checkout flows, or even worry about financial details being spread over the net,” says Robert Swerlig, head of commerce partnerships for Google Checkout. “They just have to sign up to Checkout and it’s fast secure shopping over the net.

Prada vs fish and chips

He draws an interesting parallel between online and offline shopping to show the attraction of Checkout. “Imagine, in the offline world, that the experience of shopping at Prada and that of shopping at your local fish and chip shop — if it accepts credit cards — is fundamentally the same,” he says.

“Obviously they are selling different things, they are in different locations, the atmosphere is different, but the actual process of buying what you want to buy is qualitatively indistinguisable in that you walk up to the counter, buy the item you want and then walk out.”

It’s not, he adds, as though Prada being Prada or Burberry being Burberry they make you enter a five digit passcode. It’s still four digits wherever you go. There’s still a counter, you still take your goods there. In other words, the process is the same.

People are prepared to walk the length and breadth of Oxford Street and buy from multiple stores, selling different things at a range of price points. Shoppers feel comfortable that when they make that purchasing decision the next step is quick, easy, familiar and safe.

Compare that with the online world, and as optimal as any given checkout flow can be — and many are far from optimal — each one is different. It’s a matter of entering in details, navigating round a new site, remembering each successive password: the difficulties quickly mount up. Small wonder, then, that companies are latching on to the Google initiative: it offers a short cut to the whole process.

An ideal outlet

Online was sold to consumers as being the ideal shopping outlet for those who are cash rich but time poor. Just witness its growth. Some ten years ago, according to Verdict Consulting, the e-retail market was insignificant: worth just £177m and accounting for 0.1% of all retail. Yet it has grown dramatically by over 7,700% and this year, shoppers will spend more than £13.8bn online — over 5% of total retail expenditure.

So if 25% of shopping carts are abandoned, and the shoppers don’t move on to another site, the potential online sales total could be much higher. There is also room for growth, says Verdict, if e-retailers develop much closer relationships with those they service to try and secure their loyalty.

One US-based import, Webloyalty, has been trying to do just that. Once online shoppers have completed a purchase with Interflora, say, they are invited to join Webloyalty’s Shopper Discounts and Rewards, a membership programme that offers cash back discounts of up to 40% off online purchases. Members receive discounts from companies that include M&S, John Lewis, Asda and Tesco, with an initial £10 cash back voucher towards their next purchase with Interflora.

This is the other side of the coin, in effect ‘monetising’ a site and providing e-retailers with a useful source of new revenue. But this is not the company’s only point of interest.

Abandonment issue

“Shopping cart abandonment is an area that we are potentially looking to move into, says Martin Child, managing director, Europe, of Webloyalty, “because it is such an issue. If you talk to e-retailers there are two things that they want: one is traffic, new people going to the site, and the second is — if they could get those people who abandon their carts to stay on — they’d be 25%, and sometimes up to 50%, better off.

“Part of the reason for abandonment is design, usability and latency — the speed with which pages load. And to be fair, some people will always browse. If something takes three to four minutes, 5% of people will break off to take a telephone call. Even with call centres, you get that.”

In other words, the reasons for abandoning an online cart are fairly clear cut. Yet to label them so neatly is to make the whole shopping experience strangely one-dimensional. And we shoppers know that, emotionally, approaching the counter at Prada is not the same as queuing up at Argos, say. The same is true online.

Upmarket emporium Fortnum & Mason, for instance, spent £25m on a massive store refurbishment for its 300 year anniversary in 2007. Then it hired a search engine marketing agency for the first time to reach a new generation of customers and to replicate the offline experience online. .

Retail challenge

The challenge for retailers is not just to ensure that the technology works — that carts are not suddenly emptied just when you’re about to pay, that you’re not shunted off the site if you dare to try and go back to the previous page — but also to make the whole experience pleasurable.

Would we appreciate the equivalent of piped music online, being offered a perfume to smell, a chocolate and sip of wine to sample? Or maybe a virtual assistant popping up to say: “can I help you?” if we appear to be spending an inordinate amount of time on any one page?

Let’s throw down the gauntlet to e-retailers, and see whether they can discover what shoppers really, really want. And as for the nuts and bolts of the checkout? For goodness sake, just get it sorted.