6 Considerations in Preparing for the Holy Grail of Unified Commerce: the Universal Cart


Over the past five 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 has forced retailers to make a quick turn from a glacial pace in delivering unified experiences to warp speed.

As an industry, we are quickly maturing the delivery of some unified experiences, such as buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and buy-online-pickup-at-curb (BOPAC), and leveraging our stores as mini-fulfillment centers for online orders. To get to the holy grail of unified commerce, however, we must have a unified cart that can be shared across all direct commerce channels. This is a cart where, in any of these shopping options, the customer can add, remove, modify, or purchase any of the items in their cart.

Sounds pretty easy, but as you dig into it, you’ll discover there is a lot that needs to be thought through before we will begin to see a real breakthrough in greater, more meaningful implementations of a universal cart.

Here are some key points that need to be considered when preparing to deliver on the promise of a unified cart:

1. Is the price really the price?

As more retailers move to deliver on the promise of unified commerce, many 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 or regions (or store groups). Some retailers have stuck with this pricing approach to maintain margins (different channels have different associated delivery and selling costs). Others have stuck with this approach because they have historically been market-driven with their pricing (e.g., in certain regions, the market can command a higher price for a specific item).

From a consumer perspective, however, the customer will always expect the retailer to honor the lowest price. Most retailers are prepared to give the customer the lowest price across their sales channels when it is requested, but is it worth the potential impact to damaging a customer’s trust with your brand as a retailer? The stakes around customer trust get higher – and more risky – every day.

Not every retailer will be prepared to move to a single selling price, and for those retailers who don’t, all possible combinations of price differences need to be carefully considered before implementation of a unified cart.

As an example, assume a retailer is selling an item at $110 online and $100 in their 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 in the store. Is the item sold in the store at $110 (the online price) or $100 (the store price)? A universal cart needs to be able to be configured to handle either option.

2. Managing price changes while an item is sitting in the customer’s universal cart

While an item is sitting in a customer’s cart, there are occasions where the retailer will change the price on the item. 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 the price has changed. 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 choice to the retailer.

As a retailer, you need to determine whether you will honor the original price the customer expected to pay when the item was placed in her cart. Should you honor the original price, then you will likely want to put a timeline on how long you will hold the original price on the item. Of course, all of this requires configuration options, as different retailers will have different policies.

Any change to the pricing in the cart requires ongoing communication with the customer – without that, retailers risk customers going to their cart and seeing an unexpected price change on an item, which could lead to a negative brand experience that may impact both the current sales opportunity and the opportunity for future engagements with the customer.

3. To hold or not to hold (inventory, that is) …

Given the variability of inventory accuracy, almost all retailers maintain a lower threshold, also called a safety stock, in their order management system. 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 while 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 while the item is sitting in the cart.

Some retailers will expect their customers to know that there is a risk of that item becoming unavailable by the time the customer decides to purchase. Other retailers, however, will want to inform their customers when the item is no longer available rather than risk a negative experience for their customers. Some within this group will want to take it a step further and notify their customers when the item is getting close to being sold out, to make sure they have the opportunity to complete their purchase before the item is gone.

From a customer-experience perspective, all of this requires careful consideration. From a systems perspective, the universal cart needs to offer configuration options to support these choices, based on 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.).

The importance of delivering all promotions across all items and channels is an expected part of the brand experience for most customers.

4. A promotion offered is expected to be a promotion taken!

Although not all retailers are ready to deliver on the promise of unified commerce, consumers are already there! Consumer expectation is already based on a unified experience – this applies to several parts of the shopping journey, including 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 pairs of shoes are purchased, the third pair is 50% off. In our example, while shopping online, the customer placed a pair of shoes in their universal cart. The customer later visits a store and decides to purchase two pairs of shoes 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 currently sitting in their universal cart. Being able to provide this information helps the customer decide that now is the time buy that pair of shoes sitting in their cart.

The importance of 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.

5. Managing the customer’s cart – how long is too long?

Retailers will want to ensure their customers keep their universal cart current – for some, this will require some 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 spur 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 previously stated, this requires ensuring the universal cart supports configuration options for the retailer, as different retailers will make different decisions on how they want to manage customer inactivity in the cart.

6. A new frontier brings new marketing opportunities

The universal cart will create new opportunities for retailers to assess customer shopping patterns and provide the type of communication content that customers will be interested in (and not see as spam). Some examples have been provided above, including being able to send notifications to customers about low inventory positions or price changes on specific items.

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. This has the potential to create greater sales conversion by giving the customer the opportunity to buy now. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to increasing sales and elevating customer experience by providing visibility to the universal cart.

Ian Auerbach

When it comes to the universal cart, there is clearly a lot that needs to be considered  this includes operational decisions, potential positive (and negative) impacts to brand experience, system capabilities, and integration requirements across multiple software vendors within a retailer’s ecosystem. The universal cart is coming  consumers increasingly expect it. Those retailers who are best prepared will deliver meaningful, positive experiences for their customers  its time has (finally) arrived!

Ian Auerbach is a solution principal for Aptos focusing on the company’s retail experience platform, Aptos ONE.  Ian is an industry veteran with over 25 years of experience in product management and product strategy for store systems and unified commerce solutions.