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Did you forget something?

Did You Forget Something? The rise of the online abandoned shopping cart

Around two-thirds of consumers spend up to two hours a day shopping online, only to suddenly exit the website before making the actual purchase. For those of us who register by email with particular retailers, a friendly reminder, ‘did you forget something?’ might pop up in our inboxes shortly after exiting the screen.

It seems many of us are ‘abandoning our shopping carts.’ The issue is growing and is faced by a growing number of retailers across all sectors.

Professor Michael Nicholson, Professorial Fellow in Marketing at Durham University Business School, addresses this issue through his research on behavioural purchasing habits, understanding why customers so readily leave their online shopping carts before reaching the checkout stage.

In March 2017, Professor Nicholson took part in the ‘Proceed to Checkout’ event at the Covent Garden Hotel in London, sponsored by KHWS Ltd., the UK’s leading brand commerce agency, and the marketing research agency Mintel.

The event was part of an ongoing two-year KHWS-Durham University Business School research project led by Dr Sarah Xiao, Associate Professor in Marketing at the School and funded by Innovate UK. The aim of the project is to identify the ‘essential moments’ in the consumer purchase journey and develop new research methodologies for improving customer experiences in online retailing.

The event was aimed at sharing information about the project with major retailers and brand owners, and to refine research priorities with help from key players in the FMCG sector. There were around 40 attendees for the event from over 20 major retailers and FMCG brand owners, including Boots, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Disney, Mars, Pizza Hut and Tesco.

The event produced a lively discussion and concluded by identifying six research priorities for the industry: gaining a better understanding of fast and slow thinking across retail formats; the need to explore when more or less content is more likely to stimulate sales; developing greater awareness of how online shopping changes across different mobile devices; the role dedicated brand spaces might play within retailer branded online stores; issues surrounding time and shopping, with online shopping in the UK peaking between 10pm and midnight each day; and the urgent need for new research methods to track omnichannel consumer behaviour of the type the KHWS-Durham project is developing.

So why are we abandoning our shopping carts? Professor Nicholson and Dr Xiao have reached tentative conclusions, due to two types of thinking consumers engage in during their shopping experiences. When comparing prices or looking for something specific, customers are often engaged in what psychologists define as ‘slow thinking’, when the brain is processing a lot of information. For the majority of customer’s shopping experiences, they rely on ‘fast thinking’, acting on instinct or what is otherwise known as ‘impulse buying’.

At the online checkout, customers are pulled back into ‘slow thinking’ when the cost is displayed on the screen. In a busy supermarket, for example, it’s difficult to walk away and leave the trolley behind at this point in the customer journey. At best the most customers will do is ask if they can put an item back; however many will not due to the embarrassment factor. When we are shopping online, it’s very easy to leave the website and leave our shopping carts behind! Really good online retailers, like Amazon, try to keep its customers mainly in ‘fast thinking’ mode by instilling a ‘one-click’ payment option to reduce the risk of cart abandonment.

But the consumer purchasing journey does not stop there. Professor Nicholson and Dr Xiao are continuing their research, obtaining data from retailers on what shoppers take out of their online carts before making a payment and conducting neuromarketing research, measuring physiological factors (eye-movements, emotional responses, etc.) at different points in the purchasing journey to identify what marketing triggers make customers move between ‘slow’ and ‘fast thinking.’

Durham University Business School postgraduate students are currently working on business projects related to this research and one undergraduate student will join the team on a summer internship. A follow-up industry event in October will share the next research data results.

This article was first published in the School's IMPACT magazine in June 2017

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