It’s often referred to as “abandoned cart syndrome” when a shopper leaves your website after flagging products for purchase. Something happens between the time they add an item to the cart and checkout. The question is, do you know what it is?

“Potential customers who leave your website prematurely aren’t going to tell you what turned them off, so the burden is on you to figure out what that is,” says Gary Chen, an analyst for small and medium business strategy at the Boston, Mass.-based Yankee Group market research firm.

It could be any number of things, says Chen, including difficult navigation, out-of-date information, surprising shipping costs or taxes, payment restrictions, identity theft concerns or unclear return policies.

Why customers abandon their carts

The New York-based eMarketer research firm included some eye-opening findings about why customers abandon their carts in a recent report. Citing data collected by WebSurveyor, an online survey software and hosting service, among the most often cited reasons that online shopping experiences during the holiday season last year were unsuccessful were: comparison shopping (30 percent), shipping cost too high (27 percent), ran out of time (27 percent), product out of stock or backordered (16 percent), and technical problems with the shopping cart (8 percent).

Tips to avoid cart ditching

A Direct Marketing Association survey conducted by online retailers in October 2005 offers some tips to limit shopping cart abandonment.

1. Try to limit the number of clicks in the shopping process. Experts say that registration before buying is a big turn-off to customers unless they understand what’s in it for them -- fewer clicks the next time. Limit the number of steps a customer has to take to pay you. It’s that simple.

2. Track pathing, a networking approach that alters network communication paths. Make sure that customers aren’t dumping the virtual shopping cart because of slowness involving technology on your end.

3. More transparency in pricing. The sooner a customer knows the price, including shipping and handling, the better. Consider installing a quick S&H calculator on the site to help.

4. Test for navigation glitches. The best way to understand the customer shopping experience is to test drive a shopping cart yourself. That way, you can find broken links or mislabeled items before your customer jumps ship.

5. Improved customer support via the website. The big companies now deploy instant chat on their sites. That might be out of the price realm of smaller companies, but make sure the shopper knows how to contact you, where you are located, what your policies are and where they can e-mail a question. Needless to say, respond promptly.

6. Encourage buyers to use an electronic payment service. Paypal or one of the major credit cards is a good way to help complete the sale. Customers are turned off by having to mail a check before they receive goods.

Troubleshoot by returning to the basics

If customers keep abandoning their shopping carts on your company website instead of completing the purchase, you may want to consider going to a professional instead of handling the problem in-house.

 “Basically, there are two methods to add shopping cart functionality: go with a hosted online e-store to handle this for you or use software to add a shopping cart to your existing site,” explains Chen.

The trend is the former -- to outsource the store -- because most SMBs don’t have the time or inclination to program a shopping cart, says Chen. “It’s often smarter to go with an existing off-the-shelf online solution, such as Yahoo! Stores or Pro Stores Pro Stores, now owned by eBay. Don’t think you can do a better job yourself.” Plans for these hosted sites can cost less than $100 a month, says Chen.

Some companies, such as Doral, Fla.-based Fortune3 offer both an e-commerce hosting solution and do-it-yourself option. Fortune3’s Web shopping cart “wizard” software costs a flat $495, although the fee is waived if an e-tailer uses Fortune3’s Web hosting solution (plans start as low as $30 a month).

“A shopping cart shouldn’t be sophisticated for both the owner and the customer,” says Fortune3 CEO Fortunato Farache. “A shopping cart should be four things: functional, fast, good-looking and secure. If the consumer senses a defect in any of these areas, they will likely leave the site.”