Monday, May 18, 2009

Seduced and abandoned

In days gone by (any time before the current recession), the shopping cart was a customer’s rolling possession holder, containing all the selections that were as good as bought and paid for. With its vertical bars, the cart gave off a warning to other shoppers to keep out, contents contained within this high-security traveling metal fencing are “my stuff.” At the same time, each product placed within the cart represented the shopper’s (almost) solemn commitment to purchase—nothing would leave the cart until checkout. Sure, once in a great while you might see a vaguely embarrassed customer beg off an item at checkout—to the tsk-tsks, tut-tuts and clucking sounds of others in the queue, a chorus of muses who sensed some important cosmic code of shopping conduct had been violated. But mostly, the mighty mobile fortress simply served as the shopper’s purchase conveyance until their items could be taken out to the parking lot and put in the car.

No more. In a recent study we did for a large retail chain, upwards of 500 items were abandoned every day in each of the stores we were in, relegated to a corral of carts in the corner whose sole purpose was to house these rejected products (looking rather forlorn, anthropomorphically speaking, like abandoned puppies at a shelter). A cottage industry sprang up in the stores to sort and re-stock these “re-shops”—a thankless, never-ending task for the associates. Clearly, customers had exploded the idea that moving an item from the shelf into their cart represented any kind of implied purchase agreement.

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article on abandonments in the online shopping world, highlighting a new web service which remarkets to those who might put an item in their electronic “cart,” but not finish the transaction. It’s an interesting approach to nudging people to re-consider, but certainly loaded with complications, not the least of which is the highly intrusive annoyance factor.

Perhaps the customer contract in bricks-and-mortar retailers will be re-initiated, and shoppers will once again follow the age-old Cafeteria Rule—take all you want and eat (buy) all you take. Or we may be witnessing something that has already changed forever—good or bad economy notwithstanding—the cart as nothing more than a carriage of considerations.
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