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Avoid abandoned trolleys

Stop visitors leaving your site during a purchase

Your online store is up and running, and sales are starting to roll in. Now is the time to step back and make sure you avoid a common pitfall for online merchants - abandoned shopping carts. A recent survey by BizRate.com shows that consumers abandon 30% of all online shopping carts without making a purchase.

It's not much better with business-to-business, where shoppers abandon 26% of shopping carts. Clearly online merchants have an opportunity to catch some customers before they leave without purchasing.

Abandoned carts happen for all sorts of reasons; from "surprise" costs which only appear at the checkout, through to complicated checkout procedures. It's a great shame to go to the expense of bringing a customer in, only to lose them at the last hurdle. Here are eight suggestions for keeping your shoppers keen all the way to signing on the dotted line.

1. Keep Shipping Costs Reasonable

Excessive shipping costs were the number 1 reason consumers abandoned carts. Granted, shipping costs need to cover packing materials and transportation, but squeezing extra pounds out of the "handling" charges is annoying to customers and costs sales. Actually, when shoppers rate shipping costs as their top niggle, what they really mean is unexpected costs of any sort. Consumers will, for example, also resent prices shown exclusive of VAT. It's fine for business sites to show prices without VAT (they can claim it back), but to a high-street shopper, it's an unwelcome surprise.

Since shipping or postage is unavoidable, how do you soften the blow? It's helpful to offer multiple shipping options to meet any need for speed. Standard postage might be more palatable to a customer than express delivery, and therefore rescue the sale. Your customer will be grateful just for the choice. Equally, if you plan to sell low-ticket items (say �5), you might need to consider whether online is right for you at all; after all, you can't compete with the high street if shipping constitutes 50% of your charges.

Be sure to set expectations on next-day shipping, by the way, as customers may expect to receive an item the following day even if they order late in the day.

2. Give Enough Information to Close the Sale and Make it Stick

BizRate.com says the second major reason online shoppers dumped their carts was that they changed their minds. In my opinion, that means the site didn't work hard enough to close the sale. On each of your product pages, give information that makes the consumer feel so good about their purchase that going through the checkout process seems well worth it:

Consider hiring a good freelance copywriter, preferably with catalogue experience, to add zing to your product descriptions.

Make sure the product descriptions answer common questions. Ask people to click through your site to see what questions they have.

Include customer comments or reviews about products; providing third-party validation. Otherwise consider linking to third-party product reviews.

Use high-quality photos - this can really help consumers feel comfortable about making an online purchase.

If customers are changing their minds, particularly on specific products, you need to find out why. Since online consumers are remarkably adept at doing their own research, you can bet you're being compared to other sites. Consider whether price is the defining factor, or whether perhaps your site just isn't visually appealing.

3. Ask for the Credit Card Number Last

Giving a credit card number over the web is still a bit daunting to many consumers. Wait to ask for credit card numbers until the very end, and make sure customers can see the total amount they'll be charged (including all charges for shipping, gift wrap and tax) when they are asked to enter their card number. Ensure that on the payment page, your phone number is clearly visible. Most users will not buy from a company with no contact details, and you will appear all the more helpful if someone is on hand during working hours to talk customers through the payment process.

4. Make Buying and Shipping Gifts Easy

Make your online store gift-friendly. Offer gift wrap options and gift cards (including a form so that users can enter a personalised message). Make sure the checkout process includes the option to enter a separate shipping address, so that gifts can go directly to the recipient. Manage your back-end processes so that a receipt doesn't accompany the gift, but rather is sent to the billing address.

5. Provide a Fast Checkout

You may have seen people leave a shopping cart full of stuff at the supermarket when the cashier lines appear unbearably long. With online shopping, the equivalent is an unbearably slow checkout process. Before you sign up for a shopping cart service, check the speed of the checkout process by trying out a couple of small-business sites that use their service. Do the pages load quickly? Is the process streamlined and easy? This becomes more important with repeat orders. If possible, offer to store your visitors' card details for next time. Note though, that this has to be optional- some users will be grateful for the simplicity, whilst others won't want you storing their credit card details on file. The more established your brand, the more customers will trust you. Perhaps the best execution of repeat-visit management is retailer Amazon's One-Click system which really does let returning customers buy with just one click.

6. "Buy" Buttons - Use Them Liberally and Make Them Load First

You can use "buy" buttons to make it easy to get products into the cart. If your site includes a summary page that shows many products as well as detail pages for each product, make sure you have "buy" buttons on both types of page. If possible, create your pages so that the "buy" buttons load first or very early in the process so that if your customers already know what they are going to buy they can do so without waiting for the whole page to load.

7. Offer Multiple Ways to Pay

Offer more than one payment option. Many people will want to pay online with a credit card, but on the other hand, many buyers are not keen to send their credit card number over the web. Don't lose those sales. Offer a freephone number on your Web site, or, if you cannot staff a real-time phone line, offer an email address and a promise to call the customer back to take the order.

TIP: A great way to encourage phone sales is to put some sort of product number next to each item in your online catalog. Users feel comfortable knowing that just by quoting the number when they call you, you'll know exactly what they're talking about. It makes for a shorter phone call for you too- a win-win situation, and a doddle to implement.

8. Deliver on Time to Lay the Groundwork for Repeat Sales

Following through with on-time delivery is crucial to building long-term customers. But according to BizRate.com, nearly 25% of online sales last holiday season did not arrive when expected. Since plenty of online purchases are for time-sensitive dates (birthdays, Christmas), that is of course wholly unacceptable. One solution is to set delivery expectations to allow for a day of error, so customers will have their expectations met.

Following these general tips will not only mean more real sales, but also more chances of a repeat visit- and repeat visits are the marketer's nirvana; after all, they are customers who have cost nothing to get through the door. Conversely, a visitor who doesn't buy is someone whom you have spent money to recruit for nothing. Put this way, abandoned shopping carts are a shocking waste of your time and money, and every effort to prevent them is a step in the right direction.

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