Shopping cart design, a topic that seems to have a million answers, so which way do you go?

For many merchants, designing the shopping cart portion of their site is given to a third party, over whom they may feel they have little control. "Select and forget" may seem a comforting response. But even when a merchant has made a large commitment to a shopping cart design (and most do), there are elements that are in their control. In fact, some of the most high functionality, pre-designed shopping carts have a tremendous amount of flexibility in how they are setup. (UltraCart, as an example, has the option of "drilling down" into very specific areas/settings for many categories ranging from a myriad of product customization options to highly customized SSL setup.)

Given this level of empowerment, it makes sense for merchants to maximize their shopping cart designs within the limits of their current shopping cart setup. Given, that here are some of the main areas we see that can/should be changed to ensure the highest level of conversions and the lowest level of shopping cart abandonment.

shopping cart design errors

Shopping cart abandonment can be caused in part by poor shopping cart design. Follow these tips when selecting and/or setting up your shoppng cart to avoid obvious errors that can cripple sales conversions.

Let's Start With Calling A Spade A Spade, And A Shopping Cart A Shopping Cart

    Granted there are many sales situations that may not fall within the typical online retail model such as:

  • Customized exchanges for services (like and
  • Fundraising sites that ask for/receive pledges online
  • Software sales that may require an integrated sales, installation and setup process

But even within what may seem to blur the line between online sales and something else, there's a magic moment when the user is asked for the sale. Calling a shopping cart by other names may be confusing to the user at this point in the process. Online representations of names like boutique, department store, discount house, emporium, market, mart, etc. may be fine for the front end of the website, but when people start interacting with the purchasing portion of the site, it is better to use visual and textual conventions when referencing the area. Whatever is standard for your geographic area is really what should be used in your shopping cart design so as not to confuse the user. (For instance, in N. America, the term "Shopping Cart" and some type of visual symbol for it is typically used.) Yes, you'd be surprised that on some sites finding the shopping cart can actually be a bit confusing for the user.

Leading The Customer Down The Right Path

Shopping on a site for the first time is really a leap of faith for must buyers. Anything that can "spook" them should be avoided. For example, a thankfully dying practice was to have the user click on some type of "buy" button, just to add an item to their cart. Not only does this have the potential to discourage multiple item sales (because the user may think that the purchasing process is over), it could also make the customer feel like they've made a purchase commitment before they are ready, making a quick escape and foiling the best practice in designing shopping carts of having an orderly, predictable checkout process. Similar errors include:

  • Not taking the user to the regular shopping cart section when an add to cart or buy button is clicked
  • Not providing a "view cart" option throughout the purchase process (in both the front end and shopping cart section of the site)
  • Not confirming when an item has been added to the cart
  • Not displaying an ongoing total for the cart (evolving to show this on the product pages while the user is still shopping like for example) or conversely making a user view the cart each time an item is added (which again can lower average order size)
  • No ability to view an review an item from within the cart (with a link back to the product page)
  • No prompt/option to checkout and/or continue shopping once an item has been added
  • Not including a clear method of deleting items from the cart (i.e. making the user change the item count to zero instead of having a reset or delete button)
  • No clear indicators of out of stock, communicating too late (after the user has given his account information), and no information on when an item might be available again

Getting In The Way Of A Sale With Poor Shopping Cart Design Upselling/Cross Selling

Have you ever been prompted to buy related items before you actually put the item you are looking at into the cart? It happens. Merchants do violate the sanctity of the "add to cart" button by doing cross/upsells before the user sees their item has been added. Different check out processes require cross/upselling prompts at different phases, but most put this opportunity downstream of interfering with the initial sale, usually before checkout. (Some sites even deliberately keep the user in the shopping mode by offering a "mini-cart" shopping cart design option that essentially pops up over the product area so they can add to cart without leaving the product information section, linked to a full sized shopping cart page as an option.) Do cross sell, by the way, just in the right way.

A similar error is requiring users to give credit card or other sensitive information before they can see the final total including taxes and shipping. (How about a zip code lookup for each item from the product screen?) This lack of a verification page is another opportunity for fear on the consumer's part because they feel they are committing to an undisclosed purchase total. (Yes, it does give them an opportunity to price compare more easily, but with price comparison sites and other sites that do give the totals before purchase commitment, it puts you at a disadvantage if you do have a better deal.) There are sites that at least give users a message that they can still change their options after they provide credit card/banking information, which may work in certain situations.)

And how about this one? Do you require users to register even before an item is added to the cart? While of course this means a higher qualified sale, it also is one of the chief reasons behind shopping cart abandonment. (A wise thing to do would be to test levels of abandonment or completion with an AB testing program like UltraCart's Ultra ROI which contains a multi-variate testing tool to see if registration requirements add or detract from final sales.)

Help Is On The Way, Or At Least Should Be

What seems obvious to the store owner (who is by definition way to close to be objective), is not to the user. In addition to making a good case for constant usability testing, it also suggests that users be given as much contextual help and explanation during the check out process as possible. These "help elements" can take the form of tiny question mark style buttons that help explain each element/phase of the check out process. Providing samples of text to add or choices to make is also a good idea, particularly if the product is able to be personalized or free form choices made. Photos, diagrams or illustrations of what is being asked for is also good. For instance a showing the user where and what a CVV number on their credit card.

Of course form validation can help by restricting answers from lists or other choices such as exclusive radio buttons that make it clear only one choice among many is acceptable. Don't forget older readers, if your product is potentially sold there, who may not know or take the trouble to increase their monitor size by keeping text, photos, etc. at a reasonable reading size. And be sure to size your buttons for the appropriately desired action. Don't use a muted color for all choices when you want them to make a specific one, like buying! Support is a key element in the sales process with toll free numbers, generous live support hours, prompt and obvious email/contact form sources, and appropriate live chat options often valued by customers, particularly those who are first time users of the site.

Security is a close cousin of help, so having prevalent trust symbols (Verisign, Comodo, BBB) on the site and in the cart can help put users at ease, plus purchasing an SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate can help in the assurance category as well, and should be integrated into the shopping cart's design.