No Buy? Then Bye-Bye

E-tailers are losing potential sales by chasing off folks who are just looking

I abandoned a shopping cart today. No, not online. I was in a Gap (GPS ) store. O.K., so they don't have shopping carts, but it was essentially the same thing: I picked up a black cotton sweater, admired it, carried it around for a bit, then put it down and left.

To e-tailers, that's a classic abandoned shopping cart. So should Gap execs try to keep me from doing that again? No way. In the real world, what I did is called browsing. But e-tailers are letting their fear of the abandoned shopping cart so engulf them that they are making browsers unwelcome. Everything from their ads to their site design is starting to scream "Buy or get out!" In the long run, this will drive shoppers away.

Browsing is a vital ingredient in shopping. Customers like to wander around and mull things over a bit--whether they're online or on land. "There are categories of merchandise that you can't simply dive in and have it done. You need to cruise," says Wendy Liebmann, president of consultancy WSL Strategic Retail.

You'd never figure that out by looking at the latest e-tailing trends. Advertising, for example, is getting surgically precise. Target.com e-mails ads in which products are hot-linked: You're beamed in one click directly to the item, skipping the rest of the store. That's risky, because pulling customers to one product--rather than encouraging them to browse--nips other potential sales in the bud. More than a third of those who buy gifts online say they purchase items they stumble on by chance while browsing, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Target Corp. (TGT ) should at least direct shoppers to a page with several items that are likely to pique their interest--and encourage them to look around.

Site designers commit similar sins. When you get to the checkout pages of macys.com or nordstrom.com, the tool bar allowing you to wander off into any department disappears. The message is clear: Pay up or skedaddle. You could click your way back if you really wanted, but e-tailers could capture more sales if they made it easier to take one last swing through the store.

In part, e-tailers have been led astray by their own terminology. By calling it an abandoned shopping cart, everyone thinks supermarket. And sure, almost no one loads a cart with food and then splits empty-handed. But in other kinds of stores, it happens all the time. "The fact that I walked in and out of 110 stores in Mission Valley Mall should not be viewed as a mistake to be corrected," says Peter Glen, a retail consultant in Cloverdale, Calif. To survive, e-tail needs to support the consumer who is "just looking" as well as the one ready to pull out a credit card. "Buy or stay away is not a reasonable answer," Glen says.

Some stores have found a balance. Potterybarn.com offers a clever "floor plan" layout on its site that lets shoppers virtually stroll from room to room, surveying housewares. Crate and Barrel offers two options on its home page: shop by item, or click the easy-to-find "browse" button for a more leisurely tour. And Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN ) sends out e-mail promotions that link to a variety of items--not just one. These sites invite casual visitors to come in and poke around.

Wall Street is telling e-tailers that abandoned shopping carts are bad. And in many cases, that's true. Carts ditched because of shipping-cost shock or a surprise "out of stock" notice are indeed missteps. But a survey by BizRate found 55% of abandoned carts were left before checkout--a third of those by people who'd simply changed their minds. They were browsing.

The shopping cart abandoned because the customer was just looking is not the enemy. In fact, it's a crucial way to sell merchandise. Chances are pretty good, for example, that I'll soon return to the Gap for that sweater. That's how we shop. And if we can't shop that way online, we may just head back to the mall.

By Ellen Neuborne

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