Online Cart Abandonment in Physical Retail Stores – How to Lose Sales

How Online Cart Abandonment Looks in Physical Retail Stores

by Barbara Farfan – Retail Industry Expert @

Last week I stopped into a coffee shop to grab breakfast on the go on my way to catch a train. I had never been in this particular coffee shop before, but I liked the vibe of it when I looked through the front window and thought I’d give it a try. Even though the customer line up was short, it was taking a long time because the one employee taking orders was not moving things along very quickly.

Employee engagement is a good thing, though, so I decided to be patient and use my time to scan the menu board and peruse the bakery case. There was not a single price on a single item, which meant I was going to have to play the how-much-is-this game when it was finally my turn to order. I then understood why the line was moving so slowly and since the cafe’s poor pricing execution was causing my delay, I changed my mind about being patient and left without making a purchase. While waiting for my order at the Starbucks down the street, I wondered how many other Starbucks customers defected there from the priceless cafe every day.

Cart abandonment.

Recently I went into one of the world’s largest supermarket chains looking for black beans. I’m sure there’s a reason why dried black beans and canned black beans are in different aisles in most grocery stores, but the logic of that eludes me. I found the dried black beans first and carried them to the canned black beans aisle to compare prices.

There was an organic choice in the canned black beans which I preferred, but for some strange reason the canned organic black beans were merchandised high on the 7th tier of shelving, at a height unreachable to the average customer.

With no employee in sight, and no forgiveness for poorly merchandised shelves, I set the bag of black beans on top of the cans of kidney beans and walked out of the store without making a purchase. Ten minutes later I was at a checkout paying for organic black beans from the grocery store competitor one block away that knew to stock merchandise they wanted to sell within the easy reach of the people who want to buy it.

Cart abandonment.

Just yesterday in a clothing store I found a sweater that I liked that was marked down 60%. Even at such a cheap price I wanted to try it on to save myself a possible merchandise return trip later. When I finally located the unmarked dressing room area, all the doors were locked and there was no attendant in sight. Not willing to play the hide-and-go-seek-a-fitting-room-key game, I hung the sweater on a nearby jeans rack and decided that I didn’t really need another sweater at all on my way out the store.

Cart abandonment. Cart abandonment. Cart abandonment.

At a Publix grocery store that I’ve frequented a lot, it’s a sporadic practice for the cashiers to ask “Did you find everything you were looking for?” This is a good “cart abandonment” question that cashiers were obviously instructed to ask at an opportune time.

Cart abandonment prevention!

I can’t count the number of times when I said, “no” in answer to that question. And each time I told the cashier that I hadn’t found something I was looking for, what happened next was… nothing. Never once was my negative response followed by any action that helped me find what I hadn’t found in that shopping trip or in any future shopping trip.

How many other Publix shoppers looked for and didn’t find the same items I didn’t find? We’ll never know and apparently neither will Publix because I never saw any evidence of a formal tracking system that helped Publix cashiers to document and/or aggregate the customer feedback they were receiving. The asking was a good idea, but it’s a classic example of systems that don’t support the people who deliver the service. It’s like offering a Live Person chat on your website and not staffing anybody to do the chatting.

Abandoned searches and abandoned purchases are the same thing in that they both result in lost sales. I think retailers would be more concerned about the “abandonment” behaviors that are happening in their physical stores every day if they were paying as much attention to how often they are happening.

In the physical world shopping cart abandonment can’t be measured by a click metric, but it can still be detected by obvious measurable cues. A sweater in the hand that’s hung back on the rack is shopping cart abandonment. A bag of misshelved black beans is shopping cart abandonment. A customer leaving the ordering queue before placing an order is cart abandonment. A look of confusion, frustration, or impatience is shopping cart abandonment waiting to happen.

I will never understand why there are so many retail sales people who will ask me if I need help as I walk in their store front door, and none who say a word to me as I exit empty-handed. Actually I do understand. In the name of “customer engagement,” retail employees are trained to greet, but they’re not trained to detect and respond to abandonment. Retail employees can’t change what they don’t notice, and they will generally only notice what management tells them is important.

Management abandonment.

I was in yet another grocery store looking for miso soup paste. I didn’t find it where I thought it should be, so I searched for a store employee to see if the store even carried the item, and if so, where its secret location might be. I found and asked employee Sabrina about the miso soup paste. Sabrina’s deer in the headlights expression told me that she was probably a summer temp. I was impressed, though, that she said, “I don’t know, but I will find out for you,” and went scurrying off to find someone to help her help me.

Unfortunately, employee #2 – Jonathan – was just as young and equally clueless. He suggested that I look in the produce aisle where the herb paste in plastic tubes were located. I humored him and looked there, but as I suspected, only herbs in plastic tubes are located in the herbs in plastic tubes section of the grocery store. Not willing to test the third-time’s-a-charm theory of grocery store chain customer service, I left without making a purchase and went to an Asian market instead. Priced and reachable, the miso purchase was made there instead.

Yes, so much of this is Retailing 101. But if it is so basic, mundane, and uninspiring, why isn’t it happening? Retailers large or small can’t legitimately blame taxes, healthcare costs, consumer sentiment, weather, or the economy for any of their disappointing sales results if they aren’t doing everything possible with the customers who walk in their doors. And they are not doing everything possible if their in-store abandonment strategies aren’t as comprehensive and aggressive as their online cart abandonment research and recovery is.

It’s a risky strategy to focus all your attention on improving the online experience, while not expending the same effort to refine the in-store experience. It’s a costly strategy to assume that any retail technological advancements can compensate for substandard basic retailing practices. It’s an unrealistic strategy to assume that consumers will be forgiving and patient with bad retailing practices and buy the dry beans anyway. Or buy anything at all. Or come back. Ever.

Bad gamble. Bad gamble. Bad gamble.




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