Entertainment

We're All Adding Stuff to Our Online Shopping Carts and Never Buying It

In 2020, we need retail therapy—but make it free. 
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
December 14, 2020, 12:00pm
a collage depicting "fantasy shopping" with a shopping cart full of bags in front of a rainbow in the sky
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty

I didn't shop much online before the pandemic, but now I do: I pick through sales, search for the best deals, and add them to my cart. I don't intend to buy them, since concerns about job security and the high cost of student loan payments keep my budget thinner than ever, but it's nice to fantasize about hitting checkout on all the clearance sweaters, kitchen tools, and skincare products. Sometimes, I'll go to a site only to realize there are still items left in the cart from a browsing session weeks before.

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Within the e-commerce industry, this behavior is known as "cart abandonment," and it's a practice that costs e-commerce brands $18 billion in lost sales per year, according to market research company Forrester. Per a report by Today in June, cart abandonment has been on the rise since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, especially within the fashion sector. 

Call it a form of self-soothing in a difficult time. In a year where the unemployment rate hit a record high of 14.7 percent in April, online window shopping has a unique benefit: It feels like retail therapy, but it's free and always accessible. "Unlike going to the mall, where people have to plan, drive etc., browsing online is 24/7," said Lan Xia, a professor of marketing at Bentley University who's studied consumer browsing. With restrictions on businesses and coronavirus concerns, it's a safe way to get the same fix.

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Cole Huling, an artistic director for an entertainment company in Colorado, has found herself doing more online window shopping recently. Without events and theater performances to shop for and an increased need to save money to keep her business afloat, Huling said that, since March, "there's a lot more looking and almost no purchasing." Though Huling has always been a big online window shopper—her job involves searching for obscure costume pieces and antiques and researching different lifestyles—her browsing this year falls into two clear categories: survival shopping, and fantasy shopping in which she almost never presses "checkout." "It's an endless rabbit hole that can never be exhausted, and I think that's part of the comfort I get from it—you can always find something interesting or pretty to look at that you've never seen before," she said. 

After I posted about this story on Twitter, hundreds of responses came in. Some people mentioned that they did this type of online window shopping long before the pandemic. Others said they were doing it more this year, and some even said that they were doing it at that exact instance, with online shopping carts full of silk-cotton sweatpants, cases of wine, Aesop skincare, and books. One person even said they had picked out an entire dream kitchen.

People cited a number of reasons for putting products in their cart and leaving them there, including forgetfulness, budget concerns, frustration with having to enter card information, trying to see the final price of an order with tax and shipping included, and keeping options open while choosing between different products. Some people mentioned doing it strategically: Letting an item sit in the cart gives you a chance to sit on what would otherwise be an impulse purchase—and certain retailers send a coupon a few days later if you don't complete the checkout process. Folks described the activity to me, variously, as a form of relaxation, a novelty, an insomnia activity, and a hobby.

While Huling's survival shopping is practical, involving work clothes and weeks' worth of food, she says her fantasy shopping has encompassed travel gear, vacation packages, photography equipment, art supplies, jewelry, makeup, hair products, luxury bath robes, and specialty food items and cooking tools. "The beauty of fantasy shopping is imagining a different world than the one I'm currently living in," she said. This brief escape from daily life helps her find hope and "hack" her mood, even if it sounds materialistic to focus on potential purchases, she said. "That perfect travel pillow, that perfect travel dress—it's a way of replacing the void left by canceled plans and endless uncertainty."

Tim Peterka, a researcher based in California, has seen a similar shift in his online browsing habits this year. Though he engaged in online window shopping before the pandemic, he said that he does it more often now that he's at home all the time, usually on his computer before bed and with an "aspirational" approach. Not only does he have items sitting in shopping carts on more websites than he did before March, but he estimates that the totals in each are a lot higher. "I'm probably looking at stuff that's even more expensive than I would otherwise to kind of be in the presence of something nice or beautiful, or something that could improve my life in some way," Peterka said. 

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Browsing is satisfying in many ways. In person, it can foster a sense of social activity, enable shoppers to narrow down options, and even provide a feeling of serendipity, when a shopper who doesn't know what they're looking for sees something unexpectedly and likes it. Similarly, online shopping carts can function as a way of temporarily holding onto interesting items. "In this sense, using [the] shopping cart for online browsing does fulfill the same pleasure as browsing in a physical store," Xia said. 

Still, the experience of online window shopping can fall short of the "real thing." Online browsing lacks the sensory interaction with items, as well as the social element of shopping with other people and being assisted by employees, Xia explained; it also can involve exposing oneself to an overwhelming amount of information and products, with the added obligation of sifting through product reviews to weigh the pros and cons of different purchases only increasing the mental load. Despite the benefits of online window shopping, Huling misses the mall. "The low murmur of dozens of people chatting casually, the soft focus of navigating a semi-crowded shop, the silly conversations when you and another shopper are both trying to decide if this sweater looks good or that product really works—I yearn for these moments more than I ever thought I would," she said.

With the integration of shopping into Instagram, saved card information in your browser, and frictionless payment platforms like Google Pay and PayPal, some people told me they'd found clever workarounds to keep the fantasy cart from becoming a reality. These include adding items to a wishlist—which acts as a  courtesy to people who actually plan to purchase the item by keeping it in inventory—or taking a screenshot of products they like instead of adding them to a cart. I've found that adding ebooks to my library wishlist and putting others on hold satisfies my urge to search for the right item, choose one, and wait for it, but without any risk of spending money.

Certainly, some of us might end up taking the jump and actually shelling out for one of the items in our fantasy carts. Peterka says that if he keeps talking about an item with his partner, he takes it as a sign that it's something worth buying. Huling, meanwhile, says she's been employing a three-week rule since she was a teenager: If she's still thinking about something three weeks after seeing it, then it's a justifiable purchase, budget permitting. 

Of course, she admits, many of the things in her fantasy cart don't make it past checkout. But, she said, "Almost always, the thrill of the hunt, so to speak, is better than the kill."

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