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Three considerations for delivering on the promise of universal carts

artificial intelligence retail
(Image credit: Image Credit: Zapp2Photo / Shutterstock)

In response to the global pandemic, many retailers accomplished in months digital transformation efforts which would have normally taken years. Whether this transformation included deploying ship-from-store capabilities to fulfill online orders, offering digital appointment setting for in-store visits, or melding digital and physical environments in a myriad of other creative ways, the pandemic was an accelerant for unified commerce. 

Which begs an important unified commerce question – are retailers finally ready to deliver on the promise of a universal cart? 

To summarise briefly, a universal cart can be shared across all direct commerce channels. This is a cart where the customer can add, remove, modify, or purchase any of the items in their cart no matter what channel they are currently interacting in. 

The concept is easy enough to understand, but the execution of it can be highly complex. Which is likely why, as an industry, we have moved at a glacial pace in rolling out universal carts to shoppers. 

But now, with rapid consumer behavior shifts and paths to purchase that almost always include a digital component, the urgency to offer universal carts has increased. 

Here are a few key considerations for retailers as they prepare to deliver on the promise of universal carts.

1. Avoid common pitfalls with universal cart pricing. 

Many retailers have moved to a single selling price for an item across all channels and regions. There are still retailers, however, that will continue to apply different prices in different channels, regions, or store groups. 

For those retailers that have not adopted a single selling price, all possible combinations of price differences need to be carefully considered before implementing a universal cart.

For example, assume a retailer is selling an item at £40 online and £30 in its stores. A customer has added this item to their universal cart whilst shopping online. This customer later is shopping in a store and decides to purchase and pay for the item whilst there. When the customer buys this item in the store, are they charged £40 (the online price) or £30 (the store price)? A universal cart needs to be able to be configured to handle either option.

Likewise, a retailer must also be able to manage a price change for an item that is sitting in the customer’s universal cart. A solid universal cart will be able to identify the price change, change the price on the item in the customer’s cart, and notify the customer that the price has changed. 

This sounds easy enough when the price has been reduced on an item, but on the rare occasion when the price increases, the universal cart needs to offer more choices to the retailer to avoid damaging its relationship with the shopper. Of course, all of this requires configuration options, as different retailers will have different policies.

2. Safety stock – hold inventory or not?  

Almost all retailers maintain safety stock in their order management system. This means that in order for an item to be available to sell to a customer, the inventory position on the item must be above this configured quantity of available-to-sell units.

The challenge with a universal cart is that whilst an item may have been above this threshold when the item was placed in the universal cart, there is a possibility of available units falling below that threshold whilst the item is sitting in the cart.

Some retailers will expect their customers to know that there is a risk of an item sitting in their cart becoming unavailable and will notify them when that happens. Some retailers will be even more proactive and notify their customers when the item is getting close to being sold out, offering an opportunity to complete their purchase whilst they still can.

3. Universal carts require unified promotions. 

The importance of extending promotions across all channels is an expected part of the shopping experience for most consumers. Naturally, from a universal cart perspective, this means that all items added to the cart – regardless of the originating sales channel – should be eligible for promotions.  

Here’s a use case that brings the concept of unified promotions with a universal cart to life. Assume there is a promotion where if two pairs of pants are purchased, the third pair is 50 percent off. When shopping online, a customer places a pair of pants in their universal cart. This customer later visits a store and decides to purchase two pairs of pants found in the store. 

When checking out, the store associate lets the customer know about the promotion and asks the customer if they also want to purchase the pair of pants sitting in their universal cart. The customer agrees, and the promotion is applied. 

This is just one example of the tremendous opportunities to increase sales and elevate the customer experience by providing visibility of the universal cart.

A new frontier in retail  

When it comes to the universal cart, there is clearly a lot that needs to be evaluated and configured. Whilst we have only scratched the surface of some of the most critical considerations, the truth is that consumers already expect a fully unified shopping experience – even if not all retailers are ready to deliver it! 

Despite the complexity involved, the universal cart will create new opportunities for retailers to better understand their customers’ shopping patterns and provide the types of communications that shoppers value. The universal cart reality is fast approaching and will be a foundational aspect of modern, customer-centric commerce.

Ian Auerbach, Solution Principal, Aptos