Improve Your Shopping Cart

Are abandoned shopping carts giving you fits? Customers can change their minds about checking out for any number of reasons, but you’d be surprised at how many online retailers make the checkout process more difficult than it needs to be. Keep reading for some helpful ways you can improve your site’s shopping cart design and hopefully increase sales.

Sometimes humor makes the point best. You’ll find the points I raise here illustrated at The Oatmeal. The artist created screen shots for a “typical” shopping cart and provided some lively commentary on what was wrong with it at each step. Before you say he was just doing it for effect, let me add that I’ve encountered most of these problems myself with one shopping cart or another. So have you, in all likelihood – and so have your customers; if not from your cart, then from others. Let’s make sure you’re not adding to their frustration, okay?

Every shopping cart includes certain fields that customers must fill out. At the beginning of the form, you must tell your customer in the clearest, easiest-to-read font, colors, and language, not only that certain fields are required, but how they will be marked. And then you must mark those fields as clearly as possible. If you’re using an asterisk, make sure it is large and bold. Using red helps, but it should still be large and bold; some people are colorblind, after all. If you think it’s not important to be crystal clear here, consider how frustrating it would be to submit a form and have absolutely no clue why it isn’t going through.

At this point, many shopping carts ask the customer to create an account with a user name and password. You’re no doubt hoping that your new customer will be a repeat customer, but right now they just want to get through this transaction. They may have no idea whether or not they’ll be back – and asking them to create an account just to buy something adds too much pressure.

Don’t believe me? Take a minute to count how many online accounts you possess. I don’t know about you, but I got up to 15, and I know there are some I’ve forgotten. I don’t want to keep track of one more. Unless it’s absolutely critical that your customer create an account, allow them to use some form of express checkout or Facebook Connect.

As to the password, you can encourage them to use something strong, but consider carefully how insistent you want to be about it. Some sites will not accept passwords that are too weak, but if you force a customer to use a strong password, you could annoy him enough that he’ll abandon the checkout process.  Strike a balance between security and ease of use.

Many shopping carts include some kind of validation, such as captcha. This is a good idea; since web forms in general can be vulnerable to SQL injection and other automated attacks,  you want to make sure you’re dealing with an actual human. Save yourself a little work; rather than using a captcha created in-house, consider using reCAPTCHA. It’s free and for a good cause – and home-brewed captcha solutions can sometimes be difficult even for humans with normal eyesight to read.

Now we’ve reached the part of the form where your customer will enter the shipping address, billing address and payment information. This usually involves entering information into lots of separate fields: first name, last name, street address, city, state, country, etc. You can arrange these fields a number of different ways, but if you want to make it easy on your customers, make them line up neatly. Don’t have one field start indented a number of spaces in relation to the one above it. It’s easier to line them up if you put the labels above each field rather than next to them. 

Here’s another little detail that should make things easier on your customers. Many shopping carts include a drop-down field for the buyer’s country. If you know where most of your customers come from, you can put their country at the top, so they don’t have to scroll past many, many other countries to enter the information. As a resident of the United States, I don’t expect a winery located in France to do this…but I do expect it of French-owned Target. The difference is the target market (pun only half-intended).

Sometimes the shipping and billing address on an order will be different. Maybe your customer is buying something with a personal credit card but wants it delivered to his work address. Or maybe he’s buying something for a friend and wants it sent directly to his buddy, rather than to his home address. Other times, however, the shipping and billing address will be the same. I have no statistics on this, but I do know that users hate having to enter the same information twice. If you can code an easy way to prevent this, do so. Maybe you can include a check box with the statement “Click here if the shipping and billing addresses are identical.”

While customers dislike entering addresses more than once, they really hate entering credit card information more than once! And yet, it’s not uncommon for the payment fields to get completely wiped clean if the customer misses a required field and tries to submit the form. I’ve encountered this myself, and been forced to get the card out again, find the field I missed, and then laboriously type in all 16 digits plus the expiration date plus the special card code, making sure everything matches. It’s bad enough doing this once, let alone twice. If I’d wanted to type numbers repeatedly I’d have gone into data entry. You may be doing this for security reasons; please, find a better solution.

Don’t Annoy Your Customer

Believe it or not, there are even more ways you might be annoying your customer enough to make him or her abandon your shopping cart. For example, let’s take another look at the fields you require them to fill out. Are you requiring that they give you information that is not strictly necessary to helping you fill their order? You can justify classifying a phone number and an email address as necessary fields (barely), on the premise of contacting your customer quickly if there is a problem with the order. But a field that asks “where did you hear about us?” should not be classified as a required field, no matter how much your sales department wants the information.

Think about it. Your customer wants this item they’re ordering. Anything that slows down the process, such as forcing them to fill out extra fields, will cool their ardor. You don’t want them to lose interest.

Finally, your customer is ready to check out. As you show them the items they’ve ordered, they might change their mind. Maybe they ordered your blue widgets when they wanted the pink ones, or maybe they want the new, improved blue-grey widget for themselves and the simpler, standard blue one for their non-color savvy friend. Whatever the reason, you need to make it easy for them to edit their shopping cart. Speaking as a professional editor, when you edit something, you do NOT (usually) throw the whole thing out and start over. Likewise, when your customer edits his shopping cart, do NOT forget everything he has entered up to this point and make him start over! I have had this happen to me. Mercifully, I do not remember the name of the online retailer – but I can tell you that I did not restart the transaction. I either did without the item or bought it somewhere else.

So, now that we’re at the end of the form, and your customer is hitting the submit button, do you greet them with a thank-you page – or do you serve them a page that promotes some other, related product? Call it “cross-selling” or “up-selling,” if you like, but your customers will call it “greedy.” You’re already getting their money, after all. If you really want to do this, include information on the other product(s) with the ones you’re already sending out. Better still, why not include some kind of free sample in the package?

Did any of the issues I mentioned in this article sound familiar to you? If you think you may have made one or more of these mistakes with your own website’s shopping cart, try checking something out with it. You’ll be looking at the purchasing process with new eyes. Good luck!

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