Business,  Design,  Internet

The Devil’s in the Details – Frictionless Checkout

Recently I’ve become a fan of Lot18, a flash sale site for wine lovers, which works much like Gilt Groupe for wine.

Like Gilt, they offer quality products at a discount to standard retail, and their site features rich descriptions and photos.

They’ve also taken advantage of some best practices in flash sales, including:

  • Daily emails to introduce the latest offering and drive traffic
  • Limited quantities
  • Time-limited sales
  • Countdown “expiration” timer after you’ve added something to your cart

The last item is key, as I believe it’s one of the things that makes Gilt so successful: urgency.

Items are reserved for a limited time (10 minutes) when you add them to your cart, but once the time expires your items are no longer reserved and anyone can buy them right from under your nose.

Seeing that timer count down the seconds creates a sense of urgency and drives many people to buy things they might not otherwise, simply out of fear that they’ll lose a great deal to some other shopper. Having had a couple items purchased out from under me on Gilt, I know first hand the feeling of loss, which only reinforces the urgency on subsequent sales.

Lot18 is obviously taking advantage of this same tactic, but they have one glaring flaw.

With Gilt, when the timer expires the items remain in your shopping cart, but are marked as “no longer reserved” in red text. That means they’ve been released back into the wild and could be purchased by anyone. It looks threatening and is often enough to make you pull the trigger if you want the items.

With Lot18, however, when an item expires it is deleted from your shopping cart entirely. It doesn’t matter if you had 1 bottle or 5 cases in your cart – everything gets deleted when the timer runs out, and there’s no history of what you looked at or added.

I’ve experienced this first hand on Lot18 a number of times, but the reason I’m writing about it now is that yesterday I was halfway through the checkout process when the timer ran out on me and all my cart contents were deleted. I had just selected my shipping address and was about to confirm payment details when I hit an error page telling me the timer had expired.

I had to start all over again, and it was infuriating.

This may seem like a small problem, but in fact I think it’s indicative of a bigger issue. Lot18 is breaking a cardinal rule of e-commerce: make the checkout process as frictionless as possible.

Most smart retailers like Amazon and Gilt keep items in shopping carts as long as possible. The shopping cart almost serves as a way of bookmarking items that you like, so you can return to purchase them at any point. Heck, Amazon takes this to an extreme and even has a “save for later” feature that archives items instead of deleting them from the cart entirely. The goal should be obvious: putting things in front of customers reminds them that they might want to make a purchase.

Lot18, on the other hand, not only deletes items as soon as the reserved timer expires, but it includes the checkout process in that time limit! It doesn’t matter if you’re entering payment info – if you’re too slow, you get kicked out and have to start the entire buying process from scratch, finding each wine you want, selecting the quantity, adding it to the cart, and then re-initiating the checkout process.

I emailed Lot18 about this flaw, and I received a standard response saying the timer was necessary given limited inventory and the need to release items back into the pool of available wine. Yeah, I get that, but it doesn’t address the actual problem.

I suspect this is a flaw in Lot18’s fundamental architecture. Gilt built the timer and reservation process separately from checkout, whereas for Lot18, adding to cart = reserved. So “un-reserving” an item probably requires deleting from the cart.

These two things should be decoupled. Reserving should not be handled the same as adding an item to the cart. The shopping cart should always contain a list of items I’ve added, unless the item is completely sold out and unavailable (and even then, Gilt let’s you add yourself to the “waiting list” in case it becomes available again).

I’d be very curious to split test this feature on Lot18 and see whether it makes a difference on conversion. I also wonder what their cart abandonment rates are and how many people make a purchase after the timer expires.

I don’t know what back-end choices Lot18 has made in building their timer and shopping cart, but this should be an easy fix and one they should seriously consider implementing. Interrupting the checkout process is a major no-no. If someone’s trying to give you money, don’t stop them!