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Hidden Marketing: Abandoned Carts

Jim Babb
Jim Babb

In our Hidden Marketing series, we reveal lessons from e-commerce market leaders by becoming their customers. We go through the shopping and checkout process step-by-step, record our observations, then analyze the strategies behind our experience.

In this edition: Are targeted emails the key to recovering abandoned carts?

It’s a frustration brick-and-mortar store owners know all too well: A customer wanders around for half an hour adding items to a basket, only to drop it at the end of an aisle and drift out the door. What went wrong? Was it the packaging? The prices? Did she take a second look at a display and notice something she didn’t like? Was a salesperson too pushy? Was the checkout line too long?

IRL retailers will never know what happened in these situations, and they definitely can’t chase the customer down the street to bring them back. In e-commerce, however, we can use data—and modern marketing insights—to explore solutions to the problem of abandoned carts.

For this investigation, we shopped 50 popular DTC brands, including Everlane, Casper, Glossier, Bonobos, Peloton, Native, Away, SmileDirectClub, and more. This allowed us to analyze their checkout processes, email capture strategies, and responses when we stopped short of making a purchase.

In retail and fashion, approximately 74% of online shopping carts are abandoned.

In other words, converting every single abandoned cart would quadruple revenues overnight. Now, the odds of doing that are about as high as the odds of being struck by lightning while winning the lottery, but it is possible to convert some carts—enough to make a real impact on your bottom line.

Nudging shoppers with an email increases your chances of closing the sale. In order to do that, however, you need the customer to complete two actions: 

  1. Add at least one item to their cart.
  2. Submit a valid email address before abandoning the checkout process.

The second step is where many online retailers struggle. How can you secure an email address from someone who’s already on the verge of bailing?

Of the sites we shopped in this experiment, 16 out of 50 asked for email addresses before moving into the rest of checkout. Some used a sign-up form, while others went with a simple email capture. Either way, they made it quick and easy for people to share information that can be used for retargeting.

80% of the brands we investigated sent an abandoned cart email.

Sounds good, but that’s actually a lower number than we expected, because we always submitted an email address when it was possible to do so before purchase—even when it meant going through extra checkout steps. Yet 20% of the brands we shopped never emailed us about our abandoned cart. We see three reasons why this could have happened:

  1. There was a technical problem that prevented our email submission from going through.
  2. The brand didn’t have a strategy for nudging customers about abandoned carts.
  3. The brand made a calculated choice not to send an abandoned cart email.

Let’s talk about that third reason. Why might a brand purposefully avoid sending abandoned cart emails? It could be a matter of past experience. Internal data might show that such emails result in low conversion rates and high opt-out rates. 

Another factor might be item price. For example, Peloton requires credit card information and an email address in the same form. That speeds up the checkout process, but makes it impossible to both abandon the cart and submit an email. This makes sense: You’re unlikely to have forgotten to purchase a $2,200 exercise bike. Likewise, we did not receive an abandoned cart email from Leesa, whose mattresses start at $699. High-quality mattresses and Peloton bikes are the opposite of casual buys—these are things shoppers spend a lot of time considering. If they choose not to check out, it’s probably for a good reason, not a whim.

Still, the majority of sites we shopped—40 out of 50—sent us at least one abandoned cart email. We discovered a wide range of timing among these emails, measuring from when we abandoned checkout to when the first email hit our inbox.

0-3 hours: 27
3-12 hours: 4
12-24 hours: 6
24-36 hours: 2
12 days: 1*

*Note about this outlier: This was a furniture brand, and our shopper had a $1,395 couch in her cart. That’s a big-ticket item, so it’s safe to assume the brand waited to nudge us for the same reason Peloton and Leesa didn’t nudge us at all.

There was also significant variation in the number of abandoned cart emails we received from each brand.

Volume of Abandoned Cart emails sent

In total, we received over 100 abandoned cart emails from 40 brands.

An abandoned cart email is more than a reminder.

The emails we received didn’t just remind us that we’d forgotten to check out. Brands took a number of creative approaches to incentivizing our return. These included:

Here are a few of our favorites.

Allbirds - for witty copy.
Allbirds - Abandoned cart witty email copy

BarkBox - for getting personal.
BarkBox Abandoned Email - Personalization

Ayr - for letting their brand show. 
Ayr -  Abandoned Cart Email letting their brand show

What’s your abandoned cart strategy?

As we discovered, leading DTC brands have strategies for capturing email addresses pre-checkout and reminding people about items they left behind. Even if an abandoned cart email doesn’t lead to a sale, it’s an opportunity to share your brand message, show off your personality, and establish a connection with someone who’s already demonstrated interest in what you have to offer. 

To maximize the impact of these emails, you’ll want to understand the data behind your abandoned carts and how that maps to your customers’ personas, behavior, and needs. If you ask us, it’s worth the effort. A smart abandoned cart email strategy will always increase the odds of a potential customer turning into a real one.