Shopping Carts

Recently, someone, I’ll call him Joe, sent me an email and asked a question about maintaining shopping cart items using client-side cookies.

A shopping cart is basically a program that maintains a list of items that a person has ordered, a list that can be viewed and reviewed and usually modified.

Joe had run into a problem in that browsers limit both the size and quantity of cookies that can be set from a Web application, and this limited the number of items that could be added to his company’s online store’s shopping carts. He asked whether there was a client-side Javascript technique he could use that would update a file on the server instead of on the client so that customers could add an unlimited number of items to their carts.

Instead of trying to maintain the company’s shopping cart using cookies, I recommended that Joe check out his Web server’s capabilities, and see what type of server-side scripting and applications his server supported. Then he could use this technology to maintain the shopping cart items. I also recommended that he limit the use of the client-side cookie to setting some form of session ID so that the connection between the cart items and the shopper was maintained.

Shopping Cart Technology

Joe’s email did get me to thinking about how online stores use different techniques to maintain their shopping carts.

For instance, all of the stores I shop at, except one, use some form of a client-side cookie, but each store uses these cookies differently. Additionally, the stores use server-side techniques to support online shopping, though this support can differ considerably between the stores.

Client-side cookies were originally defined by Netscape for use in Navigator, though most browsers support cookies. Cookies are small bits of information stored at the client that can be maintained for the length of a session, a day, a week, or even longer.

The use of client-side cookies is rigidly constrained in order to prevent security violations. You can turn off cookies with your browser, but be aware that cookies do not violate the security of your machine and without the use of cookies your online shopping will be severely curtailed.

This YASD article does a little technology snooping of four online shopping sites and snoops out how each site uses a combination of server-side and client-side processing to maintain its carts.

Covered in this article are the shopping cart techniques used at the following online stores:

  • Amazon.com
  • Beyond.com
  • Catalogcity.com
  • Reel.com

Shop Til You Drop

To understand shopping cart maintenance, its important to understand customer shopping habits. We’ll start this article by looking at some online shopping habits.

First, online shopping has grown enormously in the last few years. Once folks found out that it was safer to send your credit card number over the Net at a secure site then to give it over a wireless phone, much of the hesitation about online shopping vanished.

What are the types of things that people buy online? Books, CDs, and Videos are popular, but so are kitchen utensils, computer hardware and software, photography equipment and film, food gifts, bathroom towels, and even irons.

People shop online because of necessity, convenience, and cost. We purchase books, CDs, and videos online because the online stores have a much larger selection than any local store could possibly have. We know that when we are looking for a book, even an out of print book, we will most likely be able to get the book from one of the online bookstores such as Amazon.

Some businesses we shop at, such as Dell, have no physical store location. This type of business provides service for their customers through mail or phone order, only. Many of us prefer to use online shopping for these types of stores rather than having to call someone up and go through a long list of items or manually fill out an order form, all the while hoping we put down the right item number. It is a whole lot simpler to look at an item and click on an image that says something like “Add to Shopping Cart”. An added benefit to online shopping is that we can review my order before it is sent, and can get a hard copy printout of the order for our records.

Normally, most of us only shop for a few items at a time, but the number of items can become large, especially with online grocery stores — a rising phenomena. However, it isn’t unusual for us to add some items to our shopping cart one day, a couple of more items another day, and so on, until we’re ready to actually place the order. At times we may even forget we have items in a shopping cart, until we add another item to the cart and the previous items show up.

We also change our mind at times, and may need to remove items from the shopping cart, or change the quantity of an item ordered. It’s also handy to have a running total for the order so we can make at least an attempt to stay within our budgets. If the shipping charges are also shown, that’s an added bonus.

Many of us may have more than one computer and may start a shopping session with a laptop and finish it at a desktop computer, though as you will see later in this article, this sometimes isn’t that easy. In addition, the use of both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer on the same machine isn’t all that unusual for heavy Net users, and we may start a shopping cart with one browser and add to the cart from another browser.

Pulling requirements from these patterns of use, we come up with the following:

  • An item can be added to a shopping cart with the touch of a button
  • Shopping cart items need to persist for more than one shopping session
  • Some indication that there are items in the shopping cart should show, at least on the home page for the site
  • The store needs to provide a means to modify the shopping cart items, or to remove an item or all items
  • A running total needs to be maintained each time the shopping cart contents are reviewed
  • Showing standard shipping charges and other costs when the shopping cart is reviewed is an added bonus
  • The shopping cart needs to follow the client
  • Stores need to provide the ability to review an order before placed
  • Stores also need to provide the ability print out the contents of the shopping cart
  • Shopping carts should support an indefinite number of items, or the number of items should be limited by company policy, not Web technology limitations.

A pretty good list of requirements. Now, how do each of the stores measure up?

To determine when cookies are used at each of the sites evaluated, I set my browsers to prompt me when the online store wants to set a cookie. Using this approach I can see what kind of cookies the store uses, and get an idea of the cookie purpose.

Amazon.com

Probably the undisputed king of online bookstores is Amazon.com. This company began as a pure Net-based business, and has shown the world that online commerce not only works, it works very well, thank you.

Amazon has one of the better store interfaces, and some of the best account and order maintenance setups, but does it meet all of our shopping cart requirements? Let’s check it out.

First, all items that Amazon sells can be added to the existing shopping cart with the touch of a button, even items that are on order but not yet in stock. In addition, the shopping cart contents will persist even if you leave the site and return at a later time. In fact, Amazon tells you that the item will remain in the shopping cart for 90 days, if I read this correctly, a feature I found to be very nice.

Bonus technique: Let people know how long the shopping cart items will remain in the cart. The only surprise to pull on a customer is to let them know an item is on sale, or that they are the millionth customer and have won something. Anything else will lose you business.

Amazon also provides a feature to save the item for purchasing at a later time. This removes the item from the cart, but still keeps the item on a list for later purchase.

The shopping cart can be reviewed at any time, and there is an icon on every page that allows you easy access the shopping cart. You can also modify the cart contents by changing the quantity of an item you’re ordering, or removing an item altogether.

Amazon makes use of standard HTML technology, so the shopping cart review page should print out fairly well. Unfortunately, the shopping cart does not display shipping charges and does not display a running total for the items. However, Amazon does show a total, including shipping, that you can review before you place the order. This page can also be printed out.

So far so good. Amazon has met most of our requirements, but the real test of Amazon’s supremacy in shopping cart technology is whether the cart can follow the customer. Unfortunately, the company does not support this capability.

When you access Amazon from a browser at a specific machine for the first time, Amazon sets an ID that is used to track your shopping cart items. Access Amazon from the same browser and the same machine, and you will get the same shopping cart items. However, if you access Amazon from another machine or even another browser, you will not get access to these shopping cart items.

Is it important to maintain shopping cart persistence from browser to browser, machine to machine? You bet it is.

I, as with other folks involved with Web development and authoring, use both Navigator and IE. In addition, there are some sites geared more towards one of these browsers, so most folks who spend a lot of time on the Net have both browsers.

There are times when I am sure I have placed an item in the shopping cart, only to find out I did, but using a different browser or from a different machine. This happens more often than I would like, and is an annoyance every time.

Now the online stores have to ask themselves the question: Are people like myself part of a customer base they want to attract? Think of this: Who is more likely to be purchasing items online than folks who spend a large amount of their time, online. And who is likely to use more than one machine and more than one browser? Folks who spend a lot of time, online.

To summarize, Amazon uses client-side cookies to establish a persistent ID between the customer and the shopping cart. The company also uses this ID to establish a connection from the customer to the customer’s account information. The shopping cart items, however, are maintained on the server, persist for 90 days, and there is no limit to the number of items that can be ordered at Amazon, at least as far as I could see. Where Amazon does not meet the requirements is by not providing a running total on the shopping cart review page, and by not providing a shopping cart that moves with the customer.

Based on the requirements met by Amazon, I give them a score of 8 our of 10, for their support of shopping cart techniques.

Beyond.com

Beyond.com sells computer software and hardware and is a Net-only based company.

Beyond.com maintains a client ID in client-side cookies, which is used to track shopping cart contents for the session, only. Beyond.com does not persist the shopping cart contents outside of a specific browser session. Once you close the browser, the current shopping cart contents are gone.

In addition, it does look as if Beyond.com maintains the shopping cart totally within one client-side cookie, tagged with the name “shopcart”.

By maintaining the shopping cart on the client, Beyond.com has chosen one of the simplest approaches to maintain a shopping cart, and simple can be good. There is little or no burden on the server other than accessing the original item that is added to the cart. There is also less maintenance to this type of system, primarily because the Web developers and administrators do not have to worry about issues of storage of information on the server, or cleaning up shopping carts that become orphaned somehow. Additionally, Beyond.com is taking advantage of a client-side storage technique that is safe and simple to use.

However, there is a limitation with this approach in that the cookie is limited to a size of 4 kilobytes. It may seem that 4K is more than large enough to support a cart, but when you store information for each item such as cart item number, name of product, version, price, store identification number, quantity and price, you can reach an upper limit more quickly then you would think. Additionally, a limit is a limit, and you have to ask yourself if you really want to limit how many items a person can add to their shopping cart.

Most online stores could probably get away with shopping carts that have number of items limitations. After all, it might be a bit unusual to purchase 40 or 50 items from a software company at any one time.

If a store’s customers tend to purchase only a few items at a time, then it might not be cost effective to provide shopping cart technology that provides for virtually unlimited items.

Beyond.com also provides a quick look at the shopping basket from every page of the site. This quick view provides the first few letters of the cart item, the quantity ordered, and a running total for the cart. As much as I appreciate having this information, I found that I would have preferred having just the quantity of items in the shopping cart and the running total: listing all of the items actually became a distraction when I had more than a few.

Beyond.com uses standard HTML and the shopping cart page did print out using the browser’s print capability. In addition, you can review the order, including the shipping charges, before the order is fully placed.

To summarize, I liked Beyond.com’s support for shopping cart status display on the other Web pages. I also liked Beyond.com’s running total. The biggest negative to Beyond.com’s shopping cart was the lack of persistence outside of the browser session. I may not order more than 5 or 10 items at a time, but it isn’t unusual for me to add a couple of items at one time, close down the browser and return at a later time to add more items and finalize the order. In addition, it isn’t impossible for people to accidentally close down their browsers, which means they lose all of the items from their cart and have to start over. Based on the lack of persistence, I would have to give Beyond.com a 6 in shopping cart technology.

Catalogcity.com

CatalogCity is an interesting online business that presents the contents of catalogs from several mail order firms, allowing you to shop for everything from a new jacket to kitchen knives. Once you have placed your order for all of the items you’re interested in, CatalogCity then submits the orders for the individual items to the specific catalog company.

Of all the online shops I have seen, CatalogCity is one of the most clever. It provides both goods and a service, but without the hassle of maintaining inventories and supporting warehouses. I am sure that CatalogCity charges a fee to use their services to the catalog companies listed, but it is most likely more profitable for these companies not to hassle with online ecommerce issues. Even for those companies that have their own site and that use CatalogCity, they will get access to people who are looking to shop, but don’t necessarily know the catalog company’s name or Web site URL.

I do like to see effective and innovative uses of Web commerce. If I have a problem with the site, it is that not all of the catalog companies support online shopping in the catalog through CatalogCity. You can review the catalog and use the phone number provided to place your order. However, it’s just not the same as one button shopping.

CatalogCity uses cookies to set a customer id the first time you access their site. However, after that, all information about the shopping cart is stored on the server. There is no indication in the pages that you have shopping cart items, but you can access the shopping cart from a well placed icon on each site page.

The shopping cart page lists all of the items, provides the ability to change or remove an item, and provides a running total — sans shipping charges. It also provides a hypertext link from the item to the page where the item was originally listed, so you can review the item before making a final purchase.

The technology that CatalogCity uses for their shopping cart is fairly standard, so the cart page should print out easily. In addition, the company does provide the customer the ability to review the order, including shipping charges, before the order is placed.

The CatalogCity shopping cart is the most persistent of all of the shopping carts that I have seen. First, if you access the site but don’t set up an account, the cart will persist from browser session to browser session, but only with the same browser and machine. However, if you create an account with CatalogCity and sign in each time you access the site, the shopping cart will follow you from one browser to another, and from one machine to another. In fact, of all the sites I reviewed for this article, CatalogCity is the only one that provided this functionality.

To summarize the CatalogCity shopping cart technology, the company has provided the best support for shopping cart persistence of all the sites visited. In addition, the company also provides easy access to the cart, and provides a running total on the shopping cart page. CatalogCity also provides you with a change to review and modify your order as well as review the shipping charges before the order is placed. About the only non-positive aspect I found with this site’s shopping cart technology is that the site does not provide information that the shopping cart has items on the first page. If CatalogCity had provided this, I would have given the site a score of 10, but I’ll have to give it a score of 9.

Reel.com

Reel.com is an online video store that sells new, and used, VHS and DVD videos. It has an excellent selection of movies and a nicely organized site.

Reel.com uses cookies to set a user id when you first access the site. When you access a specific item, the site uses ASP pages and ASP (Microsoft’s server-side technology) sets a cookie with a session id when the first ASP page is accessed. After that, no other cookies are set. All shopping cart items are maintained on the server.

ASP or Active Server Pages, was the technology that seemed to be most used at the different online stores. ASP technology originated with the release of Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS), but has since been ported to other Web servers and even to Unix from a company called ChiliSoft.

ASP provides for both server-side scripting as well as server-side programming with ASP components. In addition, ASP provides full support for data access through Microsoft’s Active Data Object technology.

One cookie that is set with ASP is the Session ID. When you access a site for the first time during a browser session, Microsoft tries to set a Session ID, to maintain a connection between your browser and the Web server. Without this, it is very difficult to maintain information about the session, such as shopping cart contents, from Web page to Web page.

Reel.com does not provide a running total for the purchases on the shopping cart page, and does not provide a visual indicator that items are in the shopping cart from any of the pages, except the shopping cart page. The company does provide easy text-based access to the shopping cart from each page and does allow you to change the quantity of an item ordered, as well as remove an item from the cart.

Reel.com provides shipping and full order information for the customer to review and modify before the order is placed, and the order page, as well as the shopping cart, can be printed out.

Reel.com does not provide persistence beyond the session. Once you close the browser, the shopping cart is gone.

To summarize, Reel.com did not score very high by meeting many of the requirements for a shopping cart. It didn’t provide a visual cue about shopping cart contents, at least on the first page of the site, nor did it provide a running total on the shopping cart page. The biggest negative, though, was that the site did not maintain the shopping cart persistently outside of the browser session. Reel.com did provide the ability to review and modify the order before the order was placed, but based on the requirements met, I would have to give Reel.com only a 4 for shopping cart technology.

Summary

Four different online store sites, each using different techniques to support the site’s shopping cart.

All of the sites used cookies to establish a connection between the browser session and the shopping cart. In addition, each site provided shopping cart pages that could be printed out, and provided the ability for the customer to review and modify, or cancel, the order before it was placed.

The highest scorer in my evaluation is CatalogCity, primarily because of their support for persistence across different browsers and machines. This was followed by Amazon, which provided for browser and machine specific persistence.

Both Reel.com and Beyond.com dropped drastically in points because of their lack of shopping cart persistence, in any form. However, Beyond.com did provide feedback as to shopping cart contents, something that CatalogCity and Amazon did not. Beyond.com may want to consider dropping their line item display of the shopping cart as this can be distracting. They were also the only online store maintaining their shopping cart in client-side cookies. While this approach has an advantage of being the quickest technique to displaying the shopping cart contents when the customer wants to review the shopping cart, and is the simplest technique to use, I still don’t see this approach as the way to go for online shopping.

If we could take CatalogCity’s persistence and add to it a running total with estimated shipping charges, and provided feedback on the cart contents in at least the home page of the site, we would have, in my opinion, the perfect shopping cart.

The next article in the Technology Snoop series will be on order processing and order status maintenance. In this you’ll see that Amazon shines. You’ll also read about how not to win customers and to lose the ones you have when I add some new online stores to the review.

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