How Long Should You Persist a Shopping Cart?

Thanks to Get Elastic reader Estevan from Career Builder for suggesting the topic “how long should you persist a shopping cart?”

If you’ve never heard the term, a persistent shopping cart saves a customer’s cart contents across sessions through “persistent cookies,” which are small text files stored on users’ computers.

Persistent cookies can be used to “remember” what’s in a customer’s cart. They may be set to expire after a number of days or even years provided they are not rejected or blasted by the user’s browser or anti-adware programs.

The biggest benefit of persisted carts is saved sales. According to a recent study by Forrester Research, 24% of web buyers confess using the shopping cart as a wish list to save products for future consideration. Now, that doesn’t mean that these customers bookmark products in the cart every time they shop online, but it does indicate that you must expect some of this behavior on the site. All of these customers expect the items to remain in the cart upon their next visit. If you don’t hold these items, they may not bother to look for them again, and you lose the sale. They may also be unimpressed with the usability of your site and choose a competitor next time.

But, could leaving cart contents in tact too long be equally dangerous? Estevan asks:

How long is too long to remember your users cart information? If a user abandons cart, and comes back to site a week later, there is a good chance they will remember added something to cart. But if it’s 3 weeks later and they haven’t cleared their cookies, do you still show them products in cart? Will they have forgotten and be confused when adding another item, seeing that they now have 2 items and only wanted to purchase the most recent?

This may indeed cause confusion, but I believe a bigger problem is laziness. Like you can’t count on web users to read instructions, neither can you bank on them reviewing their orders. I confess I have fallen prey to this laziness myself. As an ecommerce blogger, I often add items randomly to carts to take screen shots for my posts. One day a Barbara Walters biography arrived at my door – I didn’t realize it was held in my cart when I purchased an out-of-print version of the Little Dutch Boy! Good thing it was inexpensive. Lesson learned.

Most customers don’t add random items to carts, they’re intentional. A more common problem is when a customer re-adds a product and doesn’t realize he/she now has a quantity of 2 in the cart. “Sticker shock” may strike the customer who scans only the total price and abandons.

Another issue relates to inventory. Hot selling or clearance items may not be available 2 hours from the time the customer adds to cart. Should the item be “held” for days? How would that affect your site’s available inventory? What if the price changes?

Perhaps “how long is too long” isn’t the issue – it’s how saved carts are presented to customers when they return.

5 Tips for Presenting Persistent Carts to Returning Visitors

Mini-cart

Showing a prominent saved cart in the top right hand corner (big and bold, not subtle) or showing a “mini-cart” that follows the user around reminds the customer that items are still in the cart:

Set up expectations in the cart

Don’t count on people reading, but sharing how long cart contents will be held at least informs customers their contents will be saved:

Show quantity boldly

Often, the quantity fades into the background of the product details, the eye jumps straight to the total and the cart button. But there are many ways you can design the cart page to draw more attention to the quantity, like putting a white quantity box on a darker background to better attract the attention of a “scanning” customer:

Showing quantity proximal to total price may have even greater impact:

Show changes to availability and price

Amazon provides clear notice when items are no longer available or have increased/decreased in price:

Use targeted selling

I have not been able to find an example of this in the wild, but another solution could be a targeted selling rule that recognizes visitors with saved items, like a lightbox greeting that says “Hello, you have items saved in your cart” and 3 buttons, Proceed to Checkout, Continue Shopping and Clear Cart. The rule could apply to all saved carts or carts that have not been re-visited in more than “X” days.

What do you think? Should there be a cap on how long to persist a cart, or should carts be presented more clearly? How do you handle persisted carts? Please share in the comments.

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9 Responses to “How Long Should You Persist a Shopping Cart?”

  1. Radim says:

    In my experience I think three weeks are the longest time to keep goods in shopping cart. If I wont be able to remember goods in my shopping cart in three weeke, I forgot it completely. This means tho product isnt much important for me.

    • It shouldn’t be that hard for a good developer to highlight items that are in someone’s cart for longer than period X. For example combine something like “Proceed to Checkout, Continue Shopping and Clear Cart” and a way of visually highlighting cart items that were added over 2 weeks ago.

      I guess what we are really looking for is knowledge about how to increase conversion. And whether persisting shopping carts helps. (I think Sam’s method makes a lot of sense for B2B, I wonder how it would work for B2C)

      I’ve been working on a product that let’s store owners monitor their customer’s shopping carts in realtime. (works better for smaller ecommerce sites, but we are working on methods of scaling it up to sites with > than 100 concurrent shoppers). Basically, you can see what your customer’s have in their carts (http://www.olark.com/shopify/video) as they browse your website.

      It would be pretty interesting to add some additional meta-data in there like “when did this person add the items to his/her cart” so you as the store owner could have a sense whether the items were added recently or a while ago.

      -Ben
      Olark.com

  2. Sebastian Franck says:

    As is so often the case the answer is probably “it depends”. If you’re Amazon you persist the cart forever. Don’t remember when they started doing that, but it made perfect sense, and seeing as I use Amazon quite loyally, I never forget that there are items waiting in my cart. If, on the other hand, you don’t command the loyalty of Amazon.com – and let’s face it, most of us don’t – it’s a different ballgame entirely. You may not even be able to assume that shoppers will remember you from visit to visit, let alone the contents of their cart. In that case I think the persistence should be a lot shorter. Maybe down to one week or less.

    Your targeted selling rule sounds intriguing. I will try that.

  3. Shawn Hakimian says:

    It depends on the product. For example, a guy looking to buy his girlfriend a diamond engagement ring can take 3 months until he makes that purchase. But with any product I would keep items in the cart forever. Since a lot of people are looking to get gifts for their spouses birthday, anniversary, ect… one feature you can add is a Gift Reminder, this way the consumer will receive an email closer to the date he’s looking to make the purchase, link the email to the product page and then he can add to cart and complete the purchase on the spot.

  4. Sam Bayer says:

    We mostly support B2B scenarios, although they have the same issues/questions around cart persistence. A solution that we’ve implemented successfully with one of our European clients is to send an email every Thursday morning to all users who have items in carts. This gentle reminder is intended to get them to place their orders that day if they want them delivered by Monday of the following week. I know that doesn’t answer the question of how long should we persist the cart, but it does lower the number of carts that need persisting :-)

    Sam

  5. Annif says:

    Last amazon example show us complexity of keeping items.
    I guess this service can be very useful for a few days but not more.
    And I approve it has to an option proposed by rhe website not something you cannot control…

  6. Jestep says:

    I think persistent sessions put usability head-on against security and privacy control.

    Many large sites that offered very iron-clad persistence have backed out due to security reasons, ebay is one that has blatantly changed in the past year.

    If a session is persistent, and someone accesses on a public computer, the settings are available for the next user. This could mean nothing to some, or could be inexcusable to others. Regardless, there’s not a lot of real risk in this scenario.

    However, the problem is compounded if the persistence extends to a logged in user, such as after a person places an order, as their personal information becomes available once they leave. Personal information clearly crosses the line compared to accidentally sharing a user’s shopping cart.

    I guess the question is, where does one draw the line, since this article mentions nothing with respect to privacy or security.

    It’s clear that persistence can improve conversions in specific situations. Does the increase justify the potential loss in privacy that inherently comes with session persistence. Even if the situation is never exploited, how many people want it to be even possible?

  7. Erik R. says:

    Great article!

    Can I ask why you reversed that wonderful image of the alarm clock with the shopping cart? The roman numerals on the clock face are reversed.

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