Anatomy of the Shopping Cart
The shopping cart icon you see on a retailer’s website has a lot to say about the current state and future challenges of omnichannel retail. On the surface, a shopping cart is simply a tool for shoppers to purchase items or save them to a wish list. As you dissect the cart further, however, it shines as a marvel of integration, exchanging information between a range of systems within and outside the retail enterprise.
Cart Complexity is a Constant
As a shopper makes her selections, the cart aggregates information ranging from item descriptions, availability, price, taxes by location and promotions for each line item. This is where the complex nature of carts begins. Different types of items available at the same retailer may be taxed differently, such as the varying tax rates for formal vs. casual apparel. Consumers in different states may also pay different sales taxes, and some items in the cart may qualify for a promotion such as buy-one-get-one-free while exclusive or clearance items may not.
Furthermore, to add to this shopping cart complexity, employee discounts and shipping and fulfillment options will come into play. Free shipping for minimum order levels, higher rates for next-day shipping, local rates for ship-from-store, and no charge for in-store pick up are just a few of the fulfillment-related components that can greatly impact a cart’s final form.
Deconstructing the Cart for Smooth Exchanges
Inventory systems, order management systems, third-party tax engines, third-party logistics providers — they all need information from the cart to help complete the purchase and fulfill orders, and odds are they need that information in a specific format. A retailer’s e-commerce system must deconstruct the cart to share that information with the departments and partners that require the data to complete the transaction. Those systems then send back the needed information and the retailer’s e-commerce platform reconstructs the cart.
Each of those individual exchanges requires an integration point or API that has to be maintained to ensure smooth performance. For example, when the tax service provider upgrades its technology, the retailer has to ensure that its cart still integrates with the new system and that the needed information flows appropriately into the cart. The cost and complexity of maintaining active integration points not only creates the need for additional middleware and enterprise service bus software, but also increases program risks, slows time to market and dampens innovation.
The ‘Holy Grail’ of a Universal Cart: Is it Possible?
A universal cart is the “Holy Grail” of omnichannel retail. It's a concept that everyone agrees would make their business easier and more efficient, but that simply isn’t feasible right now. Retailers and their solution providers have significant investments in proprietary technologies, and although the boundaries between those technologies are often noted as impediments to seamless omnichannel retail, brands can’t afford to replace everything overnight — even if solutions such as a universal cart were available.
In the ideal omnichannel world, retailers would use a universal cart that wouldn’t require the deconstruction/reconstruction process, related interfaces and maintenance. Each entity involved in the transaction would use the same data formats, and would hand off the cart as more of a fully formed standardized object, similar to the way Blobs are used for picture and video today. Whether a shopper wanted to buy an item from the website, reserve an item online for in-store pick up, or buy in-store and ship to home, the same cart data would flow seamlessly throughout the retailer’s e-commerce, in-store point-of-sale system, and order management systems, as well as any other third-party partners involved in the transaction.
It’s safe to say that change is coming. Ultimately, customers’ omnichannel expectations will drive retailers and their solution providers to embrace the open standards that make the shopping experience seamless and consistent for consumers — and less complex and expensive for retailers
Greg Davis is the vice president of product strategy for Starmount, a retail technology solutions provider.
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