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Do Universal Shopping Carts Have a Future?

A year ago, universal shopping carts were all the rage among shopping aggregation sites. But results have been mixed.
Last month, Keep pulled the plug on its universal shopping cart. Photo: Keep

Last month, Keep pulled the plug on its universal shopping cart. Photo: Keep

In July 2014, the shopping app Keep announced the arrival of what it claimed was the first truly universal online shopping cart. Users of the fashion discovery tool — which, like competitors Fancy, Lyst and Pinterest, lets you tag and organize items that you like — could now visit any site on the web, add products to Keep's shopping cart, and check out. The idea was to eliminate the arduous process of entering your credit card and address information into dozens of different e-commerce sites with disparate user experiences. Instead, your go-to would be the mobile-friendly Keep cart.

The catch, and the ultimate reason Keep had to shut down its universal cart just a year later, was that it was not an automated service. Instead, every time a user placed an order through the Keep cart, an actual human who worked at Keep was tasked with buying that item through the real e-commerce site. (So the user was paying Keep, and Keep was paying the retailer.) Human capital is expensive, and Keep told Racked earlier this month that it just couldn’t keep up with the financial demands. However, “Consumers loved [the universal cart],” Keep CEO Scott Kurnit told Fashionista. “We see it coming back in the future.”

There are many sites and apps that aggregate fashion products — from Fancy to Keep to Lyst to ShopStyle — although they all do it a little differently. What’s not unique is that these sites traditionally use affiliate links to generate commission on sales of the products they display. It makes sense why dreams of a universal cart have haunted those in the fashion aggregation space for the last half-decade. A cart makes it feel like a singular experience.

Many were trying to build their own but failed. The platform that has gotten the furthest is Lyst, which launched its universal shopping cart in July 2013. No, you can’t shop every store on the web via Lyst’s cart like you can Keep’s, but you can shop hundreds of the high-end, cool-kid brands and retailers with which Lyst has partnered, including Alexander Wang, Adam Lippes and Editorialist. “We’ve seen conversion rates increase anywhere from 200 to 500 percent, depending on the affiliate,” Lyst CEO and co-founder Chris Morton says. The difference between Lyst’s approach and Keep’s, however, is that Lyst’s cart is automated. “It was a pretty tough problem to solve because you have to have inventory synchronized in real time,” Morton explains. “Some people who started realized how difficult it is and pulled back.”

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The company has always been heavy on the tech, and Morton made it a priority to get the shopping cart right. How much a "200-500 percent conversion rate" increase actually amounts to is hard to determine, though. And many of the brands and retailers featured on Lyst have opted out of the universal shopping cart.

The Dreslyn, a Los Angeles-based e-commerce site, has been using Lyst's universal shopping cart tool since it signed on as a retail partner in November 2013. That means Dreslyn co-founder Brandon Taylor can't speak to a before-and-after increase in conversation rates. But he can say that affiliate sales have jumped somewhere between 6 and 9 percent since they began working together. "A universal shopping cart allows consumers to identify and purchase more personally relevant items, while greatly reducing the risk of abandoning a potential purchase from The Dreslyn," Taylor believes. "It's one of the major reasons we teamed up with Lyst."

But even the universal shopping cart doesn't pump up conversion rates as much as Lyst boasts, it does allow Lyst to collect more data, which is the second part of its business. While Lyst makes commission via affiliate links, it also employs a group of data scientists that break down what they find and spit it back in an organized fashion to interested brands and retail partners free of charge. (It's a perk of partnering with Lyst.) Morton is now moving into white-labeling his shopping-cart technology to other properties that might not have the budget to develop their own.

But as individual retailers create better mobile experiences, and universal payment services like Apple Pay gain traction, do we really, truly need a universal shopping cart? Spring, which launched in late 2014 as less of an aggregator and more of a shoppable Instagram for fashion brands, did away with the shopping cart altogether. “When we looked at broader e-commerce data, we saw an overwhelming amount of customers who would add a number of items to their cart, and then go back later and only purchase one of the 10,” says Spring CEO and co-founder Alan Tisch. “We also saw that the average basket size on mobile was 1.2 items. For us, that meant customers wanted two distinct functionalities.” Those were “Buy Now” and “Save Later," which meant you could either file away the maybes, or immediately say yes to the yeses. Spring was also one of the first apps to implement Apple Pay. While Spring would not share the percentage of its sales that are made through Apple Pay, Tisch seemed enthusiastic about the service. “Anything that makes it easier, and safer for customers to purchase products is value added,” he says. “Apple Pay does both of these [things]. We couldn't be happier with it.”

Whether that approach will make year-old Spring a more successful app than, say, five-year-old Lyst or three-year-old Keep remains to be seen. It also depends on how you define success. On Sunday, July 26, Spring ranked #153 in the app store’s lifestyle category while Keep’s was 832 and Lyst was 925, according to tracking site App Annie. Even Spring did not rank in the top 1,500 most-downloaded apps overall. That doesn’t mean that millions of people haven’t downloaded these apps in the past, or that millions more don’t use Lyst or Keep on their desktops. But it does mean there aren’t that many people currently downloading them. Right now, the leaders in this crowded category need to figure out ways to get more people to use and shop from their apps. Will a seamless checkout help? Sure. But it's likely not the game changer it was once thought to be. 

Update: An earlier version of the article stated brands and retailers must pay for access to Lyst's data. That is incorrect. Any brand or retailer that is a Lyst partner can access the data and analysis for free.