Universal cart: The key to unified commerce in retail

In recent years, a recurring theme in the retail industry has been the growing importance of unified experiences across all points of engagement with the customer

COVID-19 accelerated this trend, forcing retailers to break down the silos between channels and adopt a flexible fulfil-from-anywhere model to move inventory as demand arises.

As an industry, we are quickly maturing the delivery of some unified experiences, such as click-and-collect and utilising stores as mini-fulfilment centres for online orders.

However, to get to the crux of unified commerce, we must have a universal cart that can be shared across all direct commerce channels.

A universal cart by definition allows customers to add, remove, modify or purchase any of the items in their digital cart whether customers are in-store, online or on the retailer’s mobile app.

This concept may sound simple enough, but as you dig into it, you’ll discover there is a lot of complexity that needs to be addressed before we can start to see an increase in real-world and meaningful adoptions of a universal cart.

Listed below are some key points that need to be considered when preparing to deliver on the promise of a universal cart:

What price are you prepared to honour?

As more retailers adopt a unified commerce strategy, many have moved to a single selling price for an item across all channels and regions.

However, a percentage of retailers continue to apply different prices across different channels or regions (or store groups). One reason retailers have stayed with this pricing approach is to maintain margins (various channels and regions have different associated delivery and selling costs).

As consumers become more informed and cautious in their spending habits, they will increasingly expect the retailer to honour the lowest price for an item. Most retailers are prepared to give the customer the lowest price across their sales channels when it is requested, but is inconsistent omnichannel pricing worth the potential damage to a customer’s trust? Every day the stakes around preserving customer trust get higher – and riskier.

Moving to a single selling price is not something all retailers will be prepared to do, and for those retailers that don’t, all possible price differences need to be carefully considered before implementation of a universal cart.

For example, assume a retailer is selling an item at £80 online and £70 in its stores. A customer has added this item to their universal cart while shopping online. The customer later is shopping in a store and decides to purchase and pay for the item while there. When the customer buys this item in the store, are they charged £80 (the online price) or £70 (the store price)? A universal cart needs to be able to be configured to handle either option.

Managing price changes for items in the universal cart

Price changes are a retail reality, but what happens when the price changes for an item that is currently sitting in a 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.

Sounds easy enough when the price has been reduced on an item, but this situation becomes trickier on the rare occasion when the price increases. As a retailer, you need to determine whether you will honour the original price of the item when it was placed in the cart or enforce the new price. Of course, all of this requires configuration options, as different retailers will have different policies.

No matter what decision is made, ongoing communication with the customer regarding any price changes in the universal cart is vital. Failure to provide that communication could result in a negative brand experience that may impact both the current sales opportunity and the opportunity for future engagements with the customer.

To hold or not to hold inventory

Almost all retailers maintain safety stock in their order management system to accommodate any unexpected surges in demand or issues with stock. However, in order for an item to be available to sell to a customer, the inventory position on the item must be above the configured quantity of available-to-sell units. The challenge with a universal cart is that while an item may have been above this threshold when the item was placed in the universal cart, it is possible that the number of available units will fall below that threshold while the item is sitting in the cart.

Some retailers will expect their customers to know that there is a risk of an item becoming unavailable by the time the customer decides to purchase. Other retailers, however, will want to inform their customers when an item is no longer available rather than risk a negative experience for their customers. Some within this group will go even further by notifying their customers when the item is low in stock, to grant them the opportunity to complete their purchase before the item is out of stock.

From a customer-experience perspective, all of this requires thoughtful consideration. From a systems perspective, the universal cart needs to offer configuration options to support these choices on the basis of what can be supported by retailers’ back-end systems (such as the systems that provide visibility to inventory, the ability to support automated communications to their customers, etc.).

Unified promotions are essential to shopper loyalty

The ability to deliver a unified commerce experience applies to the entire shopping journey, including promotions.

When it comes to promotions from a universal cart perspective, all items added to a cart – regardless of the originating sales channel – should be part of the qualification process to determine whether a promotion should be applied to the cart. For example, assume there is a promotion where if two phone cases are purchased, the third phone case is 50% off. In our example, while shopping online, the customer places a phone case in their universal cart. The customer later visits a store and decides to purchase two phone cases 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 phone case currently sitting in their universal cart. Having this information helps the customer decide that now is the time to buy that phone case sitting in their cart. Nowadays, delivering all promotions across all items and channels is an expected part of the brand experience for most customers. Failure to deliver can result in a negative shopping experience, increased distrust of the retailer, and the risk of the customer moving their loyalty to another brand.

Configs for keeping the universal cart current

Retailers will want to ensure their customers keep their universal cart current – for some, this will require gentle nudging. The universal cart needs to be able to assess cart inactivity, such as when items have been in the cart for too long, and support sending a notification to the customer to encourage action.

If there continues to be no activity on those items, then after a defined period of time, the items could be removed from the customer’s cart.

As different retailers will make different decisions on how they want to manage cart inactivity, once again it becomes important for the universal cart to support configuration options for the retailer.

A whole new (unified) world of marketing opportunities

The universal cart will create boundless new opportunities for retailers to communicate with shoppers directly based on their shopping behaviours, in a way that is seen as helpful and personalised as opposed to being seen as spam.

Examples of these types of communications are explained above, such as the ability to send notifications when an item in the cart has a low stock position or when a price has changed.

The universal cart can also be a great marketing tool to help increase sales inside the store. Imagine store associates having visibility to items they know the customer is interested in and being able to tell the customer that items sitting in their cart are in stock in that store.

Competitive advantage requires unified commerce – and a universal cart

Retailers were on the path to unified commerce prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the health crisis and the resulting radically altered consumer behaviours have accelerated the urgency.

As part of this digital-first transformation, consumers are increasingly expecting the universal cart. Those retailers who are best prepared to deliver it will forge deeper relationships with their customers – while potentially increasing sales, fostering brand loyalty and leapfrogging competitors.

About the Author

Ian Auerbach is solution principal at Aptos Retail. Aptos is the largest provider of enterprise software focused exclusively on retail. Our cloud-based Singular Retail™ solutions are trusted by over 1,000 retail brands in 65 countries. With industry-leading omnichannel commerce and merchandise lifecycle management solutions, we help retailers develop dynamic and responsive assortments, streamline operations and deliver integrated, seamless experiences…wherever shoppers choose to engage.