Shoppers are abandoning their online carts more than ever — here's why

Many of us are treating online shopping carts like window shopping.
Woman working from home on sofa with laptop
What is shopping cart abandonment? And why is it on the rise? Getty Images stock

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/ Source: TODAY
By Chrissy Callahan

Do you feel like you've been spending more time filling your online shopping cart, but never actually buying the items? Over the last few months, experts say many of us have come to approach those virtual shopping carts as a noncommittal form of window shopping.

Similar to a Pinterest board, online shopping carts have become a way to help us keep track of items we might be interested in without actually committing to a purchase. But is all that endless browsing helping or hurting us? And what items are we most likely to abandon in our carts or buy? TODAY Style spoke to industry experts to find out.

With online shopping on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic, many consumers are browsing and leaving their carts behind.Getty Images stock

Are we abandoning our shopping carts more often?

The online and in-store shopping experiences are vastly different, and since you can't touch or examine items online the way would you in real life, consumers often treat online carts as they would a fitting room by adding multiple items at once to weigh their options.

As opposed to a brick-and-mortar store, where your physical cart can only hold so much, an online cart's capacity is endless and the potential for a user to change their mind before buying is pretty high. According to a September 2019 study from web usability research group the Baymard Institute, the global average online shopping cart abandonment rate is a whopping 69.57%.

"In other words, after having gone through the trouble of finding a product and adding it to their cart, two out of three users still choose to abandon the purchase," Baymard Institute UX auditor Richard Lam said.

Jordan Elkind, VP of retail insights for customer data and identity platform Amperity, told TODAY Style about a recent analysis that suggests customers have created 46.8% more shopping baskets since the start of the COVID pandemic (in year-over-year comparison).

"On the whole, the data show a steep increase in the frequency of cart abandonment (folks filling their carts but not purchasing) in the post-COVID-19 era. Data from the onset of COVID this year show a 94.4% abandonment rate (i.e., the percent of carts that are filled but not checked out) compared to 85.1% in the comparable period last year. This equates to billions of dollars in forgone e-commerce revenue," Elkind said.

Digital shopping platform ShopStyle has also noticed an increase in shoppers' use of the "favorite" button in recent months, particularly while shopping for furniture ("favorites" are up 392%).

Are we more likely to leave certain products in our carts?

Our motivations for shopping online can vary depending on the day, and can include everything from boredom to necessity. So it makes sense that we're more likely to follow through with certain purchases that we might consider essential and delay others that seem more indulgent.

"We observe baseline differences across product categories — for example, industries that are fit-specific (fashion and apparel) tend to see higher abandonment than categories that are non size-specific (beauty and accessories). And goods with a higher price point tend to show higher abandonment than lower price point, impulse purchases," Elkind said.

According to Polly Wong, president of direct marketing agency Belardi Wong, home decorpurchases are less likely to be abandoned online, and when they are, it's typically because the item is considered more of a commitment and the consumer needs to take measurements or consult with other family members before pulling the trigger.

Some items are more often left behind in a shopping cart ... like that wild "going out" top you know you'll never actually wear.Getty Images stock

It makes sense that many of us have turned to online shopping amid the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home order, but it also seems to have affected our shopping habits. Elkind notes that fashion and apparel cart abandonment is up 12.2 percentage points (from 84.3% to 96.5%), possibly because we're relaxing our wardrobes while working from home.

On the other hand, home goods cart abandonment is down 1.3 percentage points (from 89.5% to 88.2%) likely because people are investing in home decoration and improvements during quarantine. Beauty cart abandonment is down 7.6 percentage points (from 81.2% to 73.6%) and there's been a strong growth in skin care and home self-care products.

Data from e-commerce company Shopify also shows that electronic shops saw double the increase in cart abandonment compared to apparel and accessories shops (comparing January/February to March/April 2020).

Why are we browsing so much but buying less?

Online browsing is very much an extension of window shopping and sometimes you just want to see what’s available even if you have no intention of buying something. But the seemingly endless product options online can be overwhelming, and online carts can help us keep track of our wish list.

Filling up a cart is also a way for consumers to shop around and compare prices, inventory and delivery dates.

“Cart abandonment is likely at an all-time high. From what we hear, consumers are learning on the fly how to navigate and shop online. Also as inventory levels get tighter, consumers are cross-site shopping more to find better delivery dates. It’s almost more about who can get them the product fastest,” Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor of market research company NPD said.

There are plenty of reasons why we fill an online cart only to abandon it later, but here are a few of the most common ones:

  • Boredom: "Some people have more time on their hands now as they’re not traveling to work and back. They may like to spend the time looking at what’s available even though they have no intention of buying anything," said Carolyn Mair, a professor, behavioral psychologist and author of "The Psychology of Fashion."
  • Comparison shopping: "One of the reasons people abandon their carts is because they are browsing or comparing products online with the intent to purchase in store — especially for high AOV (average order value) categories, such as home decor," Wong said.
  • Hidden fees: "In our 2020 survey, out of 4,570 adult respondents in the US, we found that 50% of users abandoned their carts in the checkout process if extra costs are too high (whether it be shipping, tax or fees)," Lam said.
  • Budget: "The pandemic has undeniably changed the way people shop and spend. In general, we are seeing that consumers are looking for more flexible payment options and financial control over their spending during these times, which may account for why they place items in their carts but don’t make the immediate purchase," said Jon Chang, a U.S. consumer insights expert for online shopping service Klarna.
  • Logistics: "Users also give up their purchase if the site forces them to create an account (28%), if it's too long or complicated to complete (21%), if they couldn't see or calculate the cost up front (18%), if delivery was too slow (18%) and if they didn't trust the site with their credit card information (17%)," Lam said.

How does all that browsing affect your mental health?Getty Images stock

Psychological effects of browsing but not buying

Part of the appeal of shopping is the thrill of the chase, and you don't always have to come home with a deal in order to feel satisfied. Sometimes, finding it in the first place is enough.

"For the consumer, the act of placing items in an online shopping cart does have positive effects. Just the process itself, even without a final purchase, brings a rush, excitement, anticipation and satisfaction," said Barbara L. Stewart, a professor of human development at the University of Houston's College of Technology.

Plus, stepping away from a sweet deal you know you don't need can also feel rewarding and can be a good self-control strategy for impulse purchases. "When a consumer places items in an online cart and then abandons it, they may feel even greater satisfaction and a 'pat on the back' from having decided not to spend the money and being a wise consumer," Stewart said.

For the most part, checking out the latest fashions or new home goods is a fun way to sneak in some entertainment, as long as you don't spend too much time endlessly browsing.

"Browsing is a harmless way of occupying time and indulging in whatever emotional high one derives by shopping without that nasty surprise at the end of the month when the credit card statement arrives," John P. Vincent, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston said. "Looking without buying may help people cope, but unfortunately can also keep alive the erroneous belief that happiness is linked to what you can buy."

Retailers often send shoppers reminder emails to encourage them to finish their transaction.Getty Images stock

Do those reminder emails influence consumers?

Nowadays, you only have to glance at a product page and, suddenly, you're getting ads all over your social media accounts and reminder emails to your inbox. It's a brilliant marketing move on the part of retailers, but do those reminder emails actually influence us to follow through with our online shopping carts?

"If we have genuinely forgotten that we left an item in the basket or if we were interrupted during our ‘shopping’ trip, this will be a reminder to buy the item. If we were just browsing, we might be inclined to buy if we are reminded and especially so if there is an incentive to do so (e.g., 10% off, or something like “only 1 left”)," Mair said.

Those reminder emails can also appeal to our emotions.

"People love to be recognized. It triggers memory of the shopping experience and prompts a return to the site, which can ultimately result in other purchases. In some ways, it’s like a well-orchestrated dance, with buyer and seller engaged for mutual benefit," Stewart said.

We may decide to buy that cute pair of shoes or not once we receive a reminder email, but the longer we leave an item in the basket, the less likely we are to buy it, according to Mair. And, besides, sometimes it's in our favor to play hard to get with retailers. "Some savvy shoppers know that when they leave items in the basket, some companies come back with an incentive to buy that item.