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Everything You Need to Know About Universal Shopping Carts

People have been tossing around the phrase "universal shopping cart" for a few years now. Here's how it's playing out today.
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In the beginning, there was e-commerce. Then, there were online shopping aggregators — "discovery" apps and sites that brought together dozens of sellers in one place. As the space got more and more crowded, some of those startups began adding "universal shopping carts" to differentiate their offerings from the pack.

What are universal shopping carts?

The concept behind a universal shopping cart is pretty simple: It allows customers to browse products on a site like Lyst or an app like Keep, add products from multiple merchants (say, Saks Fifth Avenue and Net-a-Porter) in one cart, and check out in one fell swoop. From a technical standpoint, that means syncing up with all those retailers' inventory systems to make sure that the item in question is still available in the right size and color at any given point — all while making transactions easy and secure. That's a tall order, but the hope is that if a startup nails it, they'll become a shopper's go-to destination and reap the benefits of taking a cut of every sale. Plus, a universal cart could, in theory, reduce the risk of basket abandonment, since shoppers aren't hopping from one site to the next to make their purchases.

Who's doing them?

Last August, the e-commerce aggregator Lyst launched its universal shopping cart, a feature it had been working on developing for a long time before its release. Lyst signs a contract with merchant partners, which gives it access to their inventory in real time; the startup's technology does all the legwork from there, so it's no extra burden on the seller. It does mean that Lyst's "universality" is only as large as the roster of e-commerce companies it's working with through this feature — at present, that's more than 300,000 multi-brand and mono-brand sites, according to founder and CEO Chris Morton. Sure, not quite universal, but pretty good. 

Note that the feature isn't exactly obvious to users as they're browsing products on Lyst. Items are denoted as "Express Checkout," meaning shoppers can purchase them directly through Lyst rather than through a third-party site. When you head to checkout, Lyst shows what products are coming from what retailers, and what their various shipping and returns policies are — but despite their different origins, all of the products can all be purchased at the same time.

The social shopping app Keep, meanwhile, launched its own "OneCart" feature in July. This one, which the company has been aggressively marketing as "truly" universal, gives customers the ability to shop anywhere on the web and put products into one basket. Users hit a "web" button to open up a browser within the app; as they look through products, "Keep" and "Buy" buttons hover over the screen. Buying sends the shopper to checkout immediately, while "keeping" an item allows the user to add it to one of his or her wishlists within the app. When the shopper's ready, she can go back and check out all the products she's found. We've tested it out, and the whole process is pretty smooth.

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A young startup called Cosmic Cart has also been tackling the universal shopping cart, earning it an investment from Target along the way. Cosmic Cart's differentiating factor is its focus on appealing to publishers along with consumers: Rather than using affiliate links, which risk readers losing interest in the content along the way, publishers can use a tool to quickly tag products that are available for sale with a purchasing widget. Shoppers sign up with Cosmic Cart, and when they find products they like, they can add it to their shopping cart, which appears as a sidebar. Checkout takes place right on the publisher's page.

And publishers certainly are interested: Last February, Glamour hopped on board the universal shopping train with its Shop Glamour app powered by the e-commerce site AHAlife.

How successful have they been?

Of course, the real measurement of how well universal shopping carts work is how effectively they boost conversion rates — are people buying more items in one go? Are they abandoning carts less? It's not entirely clear. Lyst has certainly built its partnerships to an impressive volume, and Morton says they're growing that list at a clip of about two to three new partners per week. Recently the team signed Lane Crawford, China's biggest department store, so clearly retailers are open to testing it out; if Lyst makes things as easy for them as it claims to, why not? 

Morton declined to comment on exact sales figures or conversion rates, noting that universal checkout does seem to be showing higher conversion rates, in some cases five times better. It's unclear how many cases that is, but there we have it. Cosmic Cart and Keep's own products are a bit young to be able to tell definitively how much they improve sales, if at all.

So what's the future?

It's a little early to tell. The tricky thing about universal shopping carts is that they deprive retailers of creating their own branded shopping experience, which may not appeal to those most protective of their image. For others, the promise of increased conversion rates and the potential to appeal to consumers looking for easy shopping solutions may be enough to outweigh that downside.

Investors, meanwhile, seem to be on the side of the universal shopping carts. Just this month, the startup Two Tap raised a $2.7 million seed round from an impressive list of investors including Y Combinator, Khosla Ventures, SV Angel and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Two Tap stores users' credit card and shipping information, allowing them to add products to a single cart across affiliate retailers. According to TechCrunch, the startup reports that it can increase conversion rates on mobile by anywhere from 6 to 10x, good news for the mobile commerce space that's heating up. If that's true, it's definitely worth keeping this kind of product on your radar.