Understanding Shopping Carts for Analytics and Conversion Optimization

Shopping carts play a very important role in conversion optimization, in fixing multi-device and multi-channel attribution issues and in accurately tracking sales data, across devices and platforms.

In order to understand and implement ecommerce tracking in Google Analytics, you first need to understand how shopping cart interact with Google Analytics.

Therefore it is imperative, to develop great understanding of what shopping carts really are, how do they work and integrate with third party solutions like: Google Analytics, Google Merchant Center, Salesforce, phone call tracking solutions etc.

Wrong selection of a shopping cart or the inability to take full advantage of it , can very easily break your conversion optimization efforts, your analytics and even the SEO of your website.

Introduction to Shopping Carts

In the context of online shopping (ecommerce),

A shopping cart is a software (ecommerce platform) which makes shopping (esp. of multiple items at a time) possible on your website / mobile app.

A shopping cart is an online equivalent of the shopping basket you use in grocery stores / shopping malls.

In the offline world, you put all the goods you want to buy in your shopping basket / cart/ trolley and then drive it to the checkout, where a salesperson process your orders, apply coupon codes, add applicable sales tax, tell you the total amount due and then collect payment.

In the online world, a shopping cart software, does all the jobs of the salesperson and much more:

shopping cart features

A shopping cart software provides following functionality to your website / mobile app:

#1 It lets your online customers to add one or more products to a shopping basket.

#2 It guides customers, step by step, in completing the checkout on your website.

#3 It processes orders by: applying coupon codes, adding applicable taxes, calculating shipping amount and then reporting the total amount due.

#4 It authorise and collects payment, with the help of a payment gateway (like paypal).

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Types of shopping carts

There are three categories of shopping carts:

#1 Ready made shopping carts

#2 Custom made shopping carts

#3 Open source shopping carts

Ready made/pre-built shopping carts

These are usually SAAS (software as a service) products, whose functionality you can borrow by paying a monthly / yearly subscription fees.

These pre-built shopping carts can be used to easily build, host and manage your online store.

Examples of popular ready made shopping carts:

#1 Shopifyhttps://www.shopify.co.uk/

#2 Magentohttps://magento.com

#3 Bigcommercehttps://www.bigcommerce.com/

#4 3d Carthttp://www.3dcart.co.uk

#5 Volusionhttps://www.volusion.com/

Following are the advantages of using ready made shopping carts over custom made shopping carts:

#1 You don’t need to hire a web developer to create and maintain your shopping cart. If you create your own shopping cart, then it would cost you several thousand dollars or even hundred thousand dollars + you will have to bear the lifelong cost of its maintenance and upgrade, which in itself can cost hundreds/thousands of dollars a month.

#2 Ready made shopping carts are cheaper and easier to use (in comparison to custom made shopping carts) + they come with zero maintenance. All of the maintenance is carried out by the shopping cart provider. You don’t have to worry about maintaining your shopping cart, fixing bugs etc.  

#3 Since ready made shopping carts are ‘ready made’, you can start using them straightaway. On the other hand, you can use a custom made shopping cart only when it is bug-free and ready to be used on a commercial level, which can take several weeks or months of rigorous testing.

#4 Since majority of ready made shopping cart providers charge a subscription fees, you can ditch their shopping cart, whenever you want, just by cancelling their subscription. This is not the case with custom made shopping carts. Once you have got a custom made shopping cart, once you have made a huge investment in it, you are stuck with it, whether or not you need it in the future.

#5 Ready made shopping carts usually come with lot of extra built-in functionality, add-ons and integration with third party tools (like Google Analytics, get response etc). You can take advantage of all these extra functionality at little to no extra cost. If you try to replicate all of this functionality in your custom shopping cart, then it may cost you tens of thousands of dollars or even hundreds of thousand of dollars, extra. 

Both in the short term and in the long run, a custom shopping cart, is likely to cost you much more than ready made shopping cart.

Many shopping carts come with built in CMS (Content Management System). For example, shopify has it own built in CMS.

Note: You don’t need to create a brand new website, in order to use a shopping cart. You can integrate shopping cart with your existing website.

Custom made shopping carts

As the name suggest, these shopping cart softwares are custom made (made to order, bespoke).

Following are the advantages of using custom made shopping carts over ready made shopping carts:

#1 Since it is custom made, you can get whatever functionality you desire, in your shopping cart.

#2 Since you have full control over your shopping cart functionality, you don’t need to wait for updates (quite common in case of ready made shopping carts) for fixing bugs or to make your cart compatible with the latest version of a third party tool/CMS.

#3 A custom shopping cart is usually hosted on your own web server. In this way, it provides more security and full ownership of your customers and sales data. For government and financial institutions, and for many big companies, data security and customers’ privacy are much more important than the development and running cost of a shopping cart. So you won’t find them using ready made shopping carts. Almost all of them, use custom made shopping carts.

#4 When you use custom made shopping cart, you actually own your cart, source code, all its design, functionality, database, all of front and back end systems. You get complete ownership. In case of ready made shopping cart, you don’t own anything. You are just borrowing the cart’s functionality. You can use the cart, only as long, as you pay your monthly subscription fees.

#5 The biggest advantage of using custom made shopping cart is that,

you can fully integrate your shopping cart with your existing systems (CRM, phone call tracking system, accounting software, point of sales system, payment gateways, email marketing platform, data warehouse or any third party solution). 

This is usually not the case, with ready made shopping carts. If you are using a ready made shopping cart, you may have to compromise on data integration, system design and functionality. If you are large organisation, then custom made shopping carts, provides best solution.

#6 Another big advantage of using a custom made shopping cart is the customized reporting it provides. You can choose to get the sales data in the format, that best match with your business needs and analytics goals. If you are using a ready made shopping cart, then you get generic reporting, which may not meet your business needs and analytics goals.

Open source shopping carts

Open source shopping carts are like free version of ready made shopping carts.

But unlike ready made shopping carts, you can access the source code and can do great deal of customization on your cart.

Through Open source shopping cart, you can set up your online store for free, provided you are ready to do all of the installation and customization on your own. You can also hire a developer to do the installation and customization for you.

Over all, Open source shopping carts are generally much cheaper to use and maintain than the commercial ready made shopping carts.

In following cases, open source shopping carts be a best option for your business:

#1 you are just starting out in ecommerce and you don’t wish to invest lot of money in an ecommerce solution.

#2 you have got developers available who can do regular maintenance of your shopping cart and keep it running bug free.

#3  you are planning to create a custom made shopping cart but you don’t wish to write the shopping cart’s code, from scratch. In that case you can use the source code of your open source shopping cart and build your cart’s functionality on top of that.

Examples of popular open source shopping carts:

#1 Open Carthttp://www.opencart.com/ . It is a PHP based ecommerce solution.

#2 Prestashophttp://www.prestashop.com/. It is a PHP based ecommerce solution based on smarty template engine.

#3 Zen Carthttp://www.zen-cart.com/.

#4 osCommercehttp://www.oscommerce.com/

#5 WooCommercehttps://www.woothemes.com/woocommerce/ It is a very popular ecommerce solution for wordpress websites.

#6 Drupal Commercehttps://drupalcommerce.org/

Payment Gateways and shopping carts

A payment gateway is a service/company through which you collect and authorise electronic payments (like debit/credit card payments) on your website.

Ready made shopping carts do not collect and authorise electronic payments. They use payment gateways for that.

Shopping carts use payment gateways, not only to authorise transactions but also to provide complete online shopping functionality. Thus it is important that your shopping cart integrates with payment gateways.

Following are examples of popular payment gateways:

#1 Paypal

#2 Authorize.net

#3 Stripe

Shopping carts like shopify, claim to integrate with 70+ payment gateways.

Types of Payment gateways

There are two types of payment gateways:

#1 External payment gateways

#2 Direct payment gateways

In case of external payment gateway, a customer has to leave the website and go to the payment gateway website, in order to complete the purchase. Whereas in case of direct payment gateway, a customer can complete the purchase without leaving the website.

If you use external payment gateway, you are most likely to see self referral issues, where the payment gateway itself is attributed majority or all of the sales in Google Analytics:

top referrer

Another downside of using external payment gateway is that you may not see all of the ecommerce data in Google Analytics.

This can happen, if a customer does not return to your website after completing his purchase on the gateway website. When the customer does not return, the ecommerce tracking code, on the order confirmation page is not executed and hence no ecommerce data is sent to GA.

So consider using direct payment gateways. They will cost you more than the external one, but will provide more accurate ecommerce data in Google Analytics.

Related Article: Tracking true referrals in Google Analytics when using PayPal and other payment gateways

Selling products without using a shopping cart

If you are selling just one item on your website or if you expect only 1 item to sell per transaction, you can then sell products, only by using a payment gateway (like PayPal, Stripe etc).

There is no need to use shopping cart then.

Note: If you are selling directly via payment gateway, then you need to create and host a payment form and then integrate this form with a payment gateway.

But using just a payment gateway for selling online, has its own disadvantages:

#1 Unlike a shopping cart software, a payment gateway usually can’t be used to: apply coupon codes, applicable taxes, do shipping rate calculations or keep track of every order.

#2 A payment gateway will send very limited e-commerce data (if any) to Google analytics. So your ecommerce reporting is going to be very limited.

These are the points you need to keep in mind, when you are deciding, whether to use a shopping cart (with payment gateway integration) or just a payment gateway, for selling online.

How a Shopping Cart works with Google Analytics

shopping cart google analytics

Stage #1: A website visitor completes a transaction.

Stage #2: Your e-commerce platform (aka shopping cart) processes the transaction (verify credit card details via a payment gateway)

Stage #3: Your shopping cart stores transaction details.

Stage #4: shopping cart creates a order confirmation page (generally ‘thank you’ page)

Stage #5: shopping cart insert e-commerce date into ‘Google Analytics E-commerce tracking code’ (which is placed on the order confirmation page)

Stage #6: shopping cart sends the order confirmation page to the visitor’s web browser.

Stage #7: As soon as the page is loaded into the visitor’s web browser, the Google Analytics Ecommerce tracking code is executed which then sends the e-commerce data to Google Analytics server.

Google Analytics server then, process the collected ecommerce data and then send it, to your GA account. That’s how, the ecommerce data become available in various GA reports.

Conversion Optimization features your shopping cart must have

Following are the conversion optimization features which your shopping cart solution must have and/or the features you should consider using straightaway:

# Ability to retarget customers who abandoned the shopping cart.

# Ability to integrate with multiple payment gateways. More payment gateways, means more payment options available to your customers, which is good for website conversion rate.

# Ability to checkout as guest.

# Ability to set up single page checkout.

# Ability to provide discounts (percentage discounts, dollars-off discounts, shipping discounts, group based discounts) and trackable coupons.

# Ability to use gift certificate for making a purchase.

# Ability to set up flash sales or promotions like buy one, get one free.

# Ability to set up internal banners

# Ability to set up daily deals, referral and loyalty programs.

# Ability to create wish lists (both public and private)

# Ability to provide cross selling and upselling features.

# Ability to perform faceted search (search/sort products by price, color, brand, size etc).

# Ability for user to review/rate products on your website.

# Ability to do product bundling (i.e. offering several products for sale as one combined product).

# Ability to provide live chat esp. during checkout.

# Full mobile commerce functionality

# Lot of plugins / add-ons through which you can easily extend the functionality of your online store.

Analytics features your shopping cart must have

Following are the analytics features which your shopping cart solution must have and/or the feature you should consider using straightaway:

# Ability to provide powerful ecommerce analytics

like sales dashboards, product reports etc.

Shopping cart handles sales data much better than Google Analytics and can thus provide more accurate sales and product performance reports, which can help you greatly in making informed business and marketing decisions and in making sure, that your GA is tracking ecommerce data accurately.

# Ability to integrate with accounting software (like Quickbooks).

Through such integration you can import: sales orders, purchase orders, invoices etc from your shopping cart into your accounting software. You can push inventory out of your accounting software into your shopping cart.

You can automatically and accurately sync all of your shopping cart data with your accounting data and can thus produce very accurate financial reports which can help you in making data driven business and marketing decisions.

For example, you can integrate both bigCommerce and Shopify with quickbooks.

# Ability to integrate with POS (point of sales) system.

Through such integration you can sync your offline sales data with online sales data, fix your online-offline attribution issues and get a better picture of the customer purchase journey.  

Both bigCommerce and Shopify provide integration with POS system.

# Ability to integrate with Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager.

If your shopping cart can integrate with GA/GTM, you can then easily set up ecommerce tracking in Google Analytics.

Almost all popular pre-built shopping carts, provide integration with Google Analytics and Google Tag manager these days. Shopping carts which do not provide such integration, must be avoided at all cost.

Once your shopping cart has been integrated with Google Analytics, it can send e-commerce data to Google Analytics server, thus allowing you to analyse and correlate e-commerce data, with website usage metrics (like sessions, bounce rate etc) in Google Analytics reports.

# Ability to integrate with CRM solutions (like salesforce).

Through such integration, you can track your website customers in your CRM. You can add your website customers as contacts and keep track of their purchasing behavior.

For example you can integrate Shopify with salesforce. There are lot of apps available for such integration.

# Ability to integrate with a phone call tracking solution (like Call Tracking Metrics).

Through such integration, you can sync your call tracking data with your shopping cart data. For example, Zapier let you integrate, call tracking metrics data with shopify data.

SEO features your shopping cart must have

A shopping cart needs to be SEO friendly. A SEO friendly shopping cart lets you:

# Customize titles, description and URLs of a web page

# Create and manage sitemaps (both HTML and XML)

# Create and manage structured data markup

# Integrate with google products (like Google Merchant Center, Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager)

# Integrate with product comparison websites (like shopping.com, pricegrabber etc)

# Integrate with email marketing platforms (like getResponse, mailchimp etc) to provide newsletter subscription feature.

# Provide built-in blog for content development and marketing. (not required, but good to have)

# Provides templates which are mobile friendly.

# Provides social sharing features.

# Provides the ability to run affiliate programs.

Introduction to Point of Sales (POS) Systems

POS (or Point of Sale) system is a combination of hardware and software through which offline transactions are carried out in retail/physical stores.

It usually comprises of:

#1 Desktop computer with POS software installed on it.

#2 Cash drawer

#3 Receipt printer

#4 Barcode scanner

#5 Debit/credit card reader

In big retail stores/shopping malls, the POS system can also also include a conveyor belt and weight scale. They often use ‘all in one units’, in which the monitor has got computer built-in and it uses touch-screen technology.

POS software is used to process transactions, manage product inventory, store customers and sales data, create sales reports etc.

Types of POS Systems

There are two types of POS systems:

#1 Traditional hardwired POS system which are used by most retailers.


#2 Cloud based POS system – It is POS software which can be used and accessed from anywhere via the internet. What that means you can access cloud based POS system via any desktop, tablet or mobile device as long as it is connected to the internet.

You can accept POS transactions via mobile phones and tablets. Shopify provides cloud based POS system.

Advantages of using cloud based POS system

Following are the key advantages of using a cloud based POS system

Through cloud based POS software you can:

#1 Accept payments anywhere (online, offline, in-store, trade show, via phone, via iPad etc) and then sync it with your shopping cart inventory.

#2 Track debit/credit card payments made using external card terminal

#3 Track customers’ purchase history (which can include both online and offline purchases).

#4 Accept two or more payments types (like cash + credit card) in a single transaction.

#5 Provide and track gift cards which can be redeemed online or offline (in store).

#6 Track sales activity of each staff member.

Thus, 

Cloud based POS systems provide excellent way to track online and offline conversions and fix multi-device and multi-channel attribution issues.

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My name is Himanshu Sharma and I help businesses find and fix their Google Analytics and conversion issues. If you have any questions or comments please contact me.

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