7 Proven Secrets of High-Converting Checkouts

Joanna Wiebe -- Authority Intensive Speaker

Your checkout is not just bleeding visitors …

It’s a burst artery.

And all those prospects you worked so hard to attract and persuade are gushing out of your site at a mind-boggling rate.

Studies show that 67.89 percent of online shopping carts are abandoned.

To put it in perspective, that’s like walking into a grocery store and seeing seven filled carts just sitting there, abandoned, near the checkout … while only three people walk out with groceries…

But we can fix it.

To start, we need to identify what’s going wrong.

Why are online shopping carts abandoned?

Price is the number one (and number two, three, four, and five) reason people abandon online shopping carts, as studies show.

In addition to high shipping fees and other price problems, users take issue with:

  1. Long checkout processes
  2. Security issues (e.g., excessive security checks, sense of poor security)
  3. Forced registration or account creation
  4. Too many fields or too much info required

Right now, your cart and checkout is a friction-filled, value-free, sandpapery tunnel.

But you’re about to learn seven secrets of boosting conversions — simply by focusing on the pages in your checkout.

These proven methods will make it so unimaginably easy for your users’ credit card details to fly off their fingertips, you’ll think you’re running a luge … not an ecommerce site.

1. High-converting checkouts make prices more palatable

The top reasons people abandon carts almost all have to do with cost. We do not want to part with our money — not necessarily because we’re cheap or poor, but because it causes us pain. Real pain.

In fact, this study shows that the part of your brain that is stimulated by pain — the orbitofrontal cortex — is the same part of your brain that’s stimulated when you have to part with your hard-earned money. Which means, for your user, entering your checkout flow is like stubbing a mental toe.

Image source: Kringelbach

Image source: Kringelbach

The principle working against you (and your checkout) is called loss aversion, which holds that your users would rather avoid acquiring something new (i.e., your solution) than give up something they already have (i.e., money) to acquire it.

When it comes to penny-pinchers, you have to work pretty damn hard to grapple a dime out of their hands. But can you work against loss aversion for those visitors who are not uber-frugal?

Science says yes.

Compare the pricing display for A and B here:


The prices in Display A are more prominent than those in Display B.

That increased prominence — including size, positioning, and use of symbols — can actually cause people who are not price-conscious to become price-conscious, according to this 2000 study.

So the way you display your prices, in and out of the cart, may actually make people clutch their wallets harder.

More food for thought:

  • This Cornell study showed that people respond better to prices when they are listed without dollar signs; note that this study was conducted on restaurant menus, but the results are supported by the above retail study.
  • Another study found that decreasing the size of the type in which you present a price can tweak the impression of the price amount — as if a price that looks small is small, and a price that looks big is big.

The goal is to make your price appear insignificant — especially at the point of purchase.

In their cart, Neiman Marcus does not use dollar signs, and the type size used to show the price is both small and neutrally colored versus, say, large and green or red.


To make your prices more palatable, avoid drawing attention to them in your checkout.

2. High-converting checkouts include free shipping (not just % off)

Did you know that high shipping prices are the number one reason people abandon carts?

Did you know that, according to OneUpWeb, 59 percent of your visitors expect to see the total cost — including shipping — before they go to checkout?

Did you know that, in 2010, Free Shipping Day (December 17) was the third highest spending day of the holiday season, right after Black Friday and Cyber Monday (then known as “Green Monday”)?

And did you know that, according to David Bell of the Wharton School of Business, free shipping offers can be more compelling than price discounts for online shoppers. As he says:

A free shipping offer that saves a customer $6.99 is more appealing to many than a discount that cuts the purchase by $10.

So it may actually be a great strategy — or at least an informed A/B test — to switch from percentage discounts to free shipping offers.

Because the cost of shipping is clearly a barrier to conversion.

But do you just roll out free shipping across the board?

Saul Torres tested free shipping against $2.99 shipping and saw a nearly 25 percent lift, justifying the investment. But if you’re a small business, simply switching to free shipping may not be an economically viable option yet.

So do you offer free shipping during short campaign periods only? You could, but that will only impact your business during campaign periods.

Instead, you might take a cue from Macy’s, which offers free shipping every day for orders over $99:


Why is free shipping only offered on purchases over $99? Why not purchases over $100?

According to Linda Bustos of Elastic Path, triple-digit prices can be more intimidating — or require more thought — than double-digit prices in and out of the cart. Thus, the idea of spending $99 to get free shipping is easier to swallow than the idea of spending $100 for it.

So offering free shipping on the highest possible double-digit number may be the happy solution.

But might Macy’s, or you, do better to offer free shipping on an even lower cart total — say, on orders over $49? What would that do for your conversion rate?

Amazon originally offered free shipping on orders over $99. They then lowered that number to $49 … then to $25 … and now they offer free shipping “memberships” with Amazon Prime. Although the impact of these changes on conversion rate and repeat purchases is unreported, ComScore reported that Amazon’s customers a) purchased fewer products and b) spent less with the $25 free-shipping threshold.

The lower your free-shipping threshold, the less likely cart totals are to exceed that threshold. So you may boost your conversions by offering free shipping on $25 orders, but your average order value is likely to go down.

BONUS TIP: What the customer thinks of as free shipping is actually your business paying the shipping for them. So why not say so?

My clients and friends have positioned “free shipping” as “we’ll pay your shipping.” They have, in turn, seen conversion lift. Plus, some even get emails from customers thanking them for paying the shipping.


3. High-converting checkouts make account creation feel less painful

Which of these two buttons do you think is worth $300 million?


It might not surprise you to learn that, as Luke Wroblewski shares in Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks and as author of this test Jared Spool describes here, a “Continue” button brought in 45 percent more sales than a “Register” button.


These buttons — and a supporting message about registration being a) optional and b) beneficial — were tested on the first page of the checkout for a $25B online retailer. The boost in conversions amounted to $6,000,000 in its first week alone.

Those results teach us a valuable lesson: If you have an “account creation” step in your checkout that you can’t remove, you can still boost your conversion rate and reduce cart abandonment by:

  1. Modifying the language on the button to remove a friction-y sense of doing work
  2. Adding a supporting line of copy explaining reasons to register and if registration is optional

If you think that $300 million sounds a bit crazy, others have seen massive drops in abandonment, too, by minimizing the focus on account creation.

As shown in this study, here’s what retailer ASOS was using as a checkout page for a while (blue box highlights for demo only):


They tested repeatedly to arrive at the following streamlined page:


The result? Approximately 50 percent more people continued to the next page in the new design versus the original.

So although account creation is one of the top reasons for cart abandonment, you may not have to get rid of your account-creation step to win more sales.

If you insist (or your business insists) that your visitors create an account, even if it might keep them from purchasing, then at least make the experience faster and better.

LongHaul.com.au asks guest visitors not to “create an account” but to enter their email address to continue, dramatically reducing the friction of this step:


And once you complete registration on Wiltshire Farm Foods, your checkout experience is nicely personalized from that point on, using the info you provided during account creation:


4. High-converting checkouts keep forms super-lean and extra-smart

Every field you add to your checkout cuts into your conversions.

Studies of forms outside the checkout — such as on lead generation pages and contact forms — have shown that lean forms lead to higher success rates. For example, one company reported a 160 percent increase in form completions when they moved from 11 fields to 4 fields.

In 2011, Expedia deleted one field in their checkout to increase profits by $12 million.

Image source: KISSmetrics

Image source: KISSmetrics

If a field isn’t required, then what’s it doing in your cart?

Think of every field in your checkout as a hurdle your prospect has to leap over. Then ask yourself if it’s worth the possibility of losing a sale — or thousands of sales — because you want to fill a database.

After the Great Field Culling Exercise, as it will come to be known in your office, you’ll want to make sure the forms that remain are so frictionless, users will barely notice they’re doing actual data entry.

Top tips to boost form completions include:

  • Pre-populating as many fields as you can
  • Offering a tickbox if billing and shipping are the same, to reduce the need to complete two forms
  • Placing error messages near the point of error
  • Showing coupon code fields only to visitors arriving via email or affiliate links

Some checkout form fields are necessary but feel superfluous to your visitor. For example, you may need an email address to send a receipt to a customer, but they may think you just want to market to them. So quell their concerns by using benefits-focused inline microcopy, like this:

    Email address (so we can send you a receipt)

Also, the more fields you have, the more errors your users may encounter.

Form-creation guru Luke Wrobleski found that inline error validation, shown below, reduces errors by as much as 22 percent and nearly halves the total time it takes a person to complete a form.

For best results, don’t validate while someone is completing a field, which Wrobleski found leads to user confusion; rather, validate after a field is populated.

Image source: Boagworld

Image source: Boagworld

Now, if we’re talking about forms in checkouts, we must talk about credit card forms.

Credit card forms house the most critical fields in the entire checkout process — no, on your entire site.

Most credit card entries look like this:


That’s fine – but it’s not exactly simplifying things for your prospect, is it? We can do better, can’t we?

Compare the above to this:


New solutions like Skeuocard and TryChec allow businesses to use skeuomorphic design to minimize the friction created by most credit card forms in checkouts … so your user can simply type in exactly what they see on their card.

This might seem a little hokey, but did you know that tech and innovation giant Intuit credits their early success to the skeuomorphic design of the “check” that was part of the Quicken software UI?

5. High-converting checkouts make buttons do more than “proceed”

Earlier, we saw how the word “Continue” on a button can work better than the word “Register,” but we don’t necessarily want to stop at basic or placeholder text. After all, what does the word “Continue” mean to your users?

“Continue” on its own leaves much to interpretation. Your user might think, Continue where? Continue forward to enter my payment details? Or continue shopping?

Ambiguity is friction – so get rid of it.

And, while we’re at it, re-consider these common button labels in carts:

  • Proceed
  • Go
  • Apply
  • Back

Does “Back” mean back to the previous step … or back to the website … or back to the future?

In this example on American Apparel, Christian Holst found that users misunderstood the “Apply” button as the action that would move them to the next step in checkout, which wasn’t true at all. Their confusion led to their inability to complete the purchase.

Check this out and see if you’d know what the “Apply” button means here:

Image source: Smashing Magazine</a

Image source: Smashing Magazine

In the study conducted on the above, test subjects misinterpreted “Apply” as the form submission button, not a button for selecting shipping options. This confusion kept them from completing a purchase.

With so much riding on the checkout, it’s important to push your button copy so it’s not just placeholder text but truly meaningful and helpful to your user.

In a test I described here, Gumballs.com saw a 20 percent increase in paid conversions when they switched their checkout button copy from “Proceed to Checkout” to “I’m Ready to Checkout”:


For best results:

  • Stick with one button per page of your cart (plus a PayPal button on the payment page)
  • Optimize the Helsinki out of that one button
  • Turn all other buttons into text links that can’t be mistaken for actions that will move a user forward in your checkout

6. High-converting checkouts reassure prospects all the way to the last step

Neil Patel’s “Quick Sprout Traffic U” is designed to reassure prospects in those critical final moments of closing:


Neil’s designer positioned two important assurances — security and a money-back guarantee — near the critical credit card fields.

Studies have shown that website users, especially non-technical users, are generally not concerned about security until the moment they’re about to enter their credit card details. (In fact, this study showed that removing security icons earlier in an experience actually boosted opt-ins, but I digress.)

So positioning the McAfee Secure logo next to the credit card fields can give users the extra assurance they need at an important moment.

Now for the interesting part:

Check out the photo of Neil Patel and the quote beside it. For prospective customers of Traffic U, Neil Patel is a major draw. He’s the expert everyone would love to hire but can’t afford. So using his photo, complete with his stamp of approval, may be the last nudge a prospect needs to transform into a customer.

7. High-converting checkouts stay in a prospect’s head from start to finish

Conversion happens in our heads.

Your checkout’s role is simply to facilitate conversion by making it extremely easy and desirable for your prospect to buy.

Never forget to keep the ultimate goal — acquiring the solution to one’s pain — front and center.

Vistaprint does this well in the earliest parts of their checkout, where they show large product shots:

Vistaprint Step 1:


Vistaprint Step 2:


Your visitors need to be reminded of the solution they’re about to purchase — and the value associated with it — throughout your checkout, not just when they enter the cart.

But we rarely do this. Hell, we rarely optimize our carts at all!

This is because we’re so often restricted by the pre-fab layouts of our checkout, we don’t have the room to continue messaging our value proposition, incentives, and anxiety-reducers / reassurances, like social proof.

We forget that persuasion doesn’t stop when someone clicks “Add to Cart,” and we tell ourselves that A/B testing in our cart is too hard.

But if you haven’t yet been convinced that it’s time to optimize your checkout experience, here’s one last data point for you …

With a redesigned checkout page, shown below, one company was able to decrease abandonment from 80 percent … to a mere 54 percent.


In other words: They brought their cart abandonment from 10 percent above industry average to 15 percent below the average!

So …

Of those seven secrets, which one will you test in your cart to lower abandonment — and increase conversions — today?

Editor’s Note

We’re ecstatic that Joanna will be speaking at our content marketing and networking event — Authority Intensive — taking place May 7-9, 2014, in Denver, Colorado. The show is sold out, but stay tuned for details on next year’s Authority Intensive.

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Reader Comments (41)

  1. Peter Johnston says

    Excellent article.

    Two things I’d add for countries outside the US…
    One is that drop down for country. Put it first. Then populate the address fields according to the way that country works addresses.
    We in Britain hate being asked for our Zip Code. That field says – you’re US-centric, you don’t care about me.
    Worse when you say State (US only). So you don’t care about my full address unless I live in the US?
    And US is usually up at the top, but for the UK I have to scroll down 10 screens past such important countries as Azerbaijan and Andorra. Put your top countries near the top, or even better, link to some IP address software which finds where I’m logging in from and puts my country at the top.

    Don’t write stuff as if the user is an idiot.
    Messages like “You haven’t filled out the form correctly. Please add…”

    Change it for something more friendly. Let them leave it out if it isn’t really important (like middle initial). Pre-populate it. And if it is happening a lot, your form is wrong – make it more obvious.

    Lastly give in gracefully if someone gets the form wrong and orders the wrong thing.
    For example, I ordered plane tickets for the 7th but somehow the return came back as being on the 28th. I didn’t find out until I arrived at the airport for the return. They told me I must have done it wrong and charged me full fare for the flight.

    Now I know I didn’t do it wrong. At some point their software jumped to its default – the end of the month. But their attitude riled me. When I go there every month, I now travel on a different airline.

    Simple error. Expensive lost customer.

    • says

      As a Canadian, Peter, I totally hear you on the “zip code” thing. :) You get used to it, but it’s a much better experience when a form *doesn’t* make paying customers think of themselves as second-class customers.

      I’ve been frustrated by default dates in forms, too – especially so when I become a power-user of a solution and start moving faster than the software is built for. Example: I love MailChimp, but when you’re scheduling an email, it defaults to today’s date for the send date, which has caused an early send more than once for me. Perhaps this is another reason to register in ecommerce checkouts! Website managers can tailor experiences for returning and “power” users, learn about the biggest mistakes they make, and pay extra attention to optimizing those fields for that particular visitor segment.

  2. says

    Joanna, thanks you for your post.

    I’m very happy to see the article that contains more than just valuable text, but also appealing and relevant images.

    There are some interesting facts and results of experiments that you have outlined. However, I’d like to note, that in each particular case it is better to split-test, because what worked for one website and its audience may not work for another. Moreover, what worked yesterday may not work today and tomorrow for the same website.

    For example, red color is supposed to be too aggressive and cause fear. But I’ve seen a case study that showed changing ‘buy now’ button’s color from classical orange to bloody red increased sells by 20%.

    So split testing should be our friend I guess.

    • says

      Yep, testing is always the answer. It’s helpful to know where to start testing though — I got some ideas that I want to try myself from this article. Well done, Joanna.

    • says

      It’s true, Michael – what works on what site should inform a test on another. And what one academic study (especially qualitative) shows should inform tests on your site. There are no best practices; there are only better practices. Some of the above examples aren’t tested but rather are examples of better practices at play; they should feed test ideas for you. So, long story short, yes, always be testing. :)

  3. says

    “We’ll pay your shipping” is a real nugget – a lot of sales have been lost because a shipping cost doesn’t “feel” like the customer’s “getting” anything…

    I know I’d rather pay more for an item I really want and get free shipping than pay what feels like an extra transaction to just… get my damn goodies.

    And having an account works well for exclusivity, like in membership sites, but you’re right, when simply buying an item, “create an account” is just a PITA alarm.

    Great advice here, Joanna.

    Cheers, Pete

    • says

      Thanks, Pete! I love “we’ll pay your shipping”, but I don’t see it that often. When I worked at a large tech company, the legal department pushed back on that message and insisted we use “free shipping” (ah, legal departments), so I suppose if you can’t technically say that your company “paid” the shipping, you should stick with “free shipping”… but if you CAN say that, then it’s definitely worth a test!

  4. says

    Joanna, I love your post, read it word for word as I can easily relate to what you’re saying. Despite being a blogger, I love online shopping too and there have been many instances that I just abandoned my shopping cart after spending an hour or so picking stuff to buy. My reasons? The lengthy process, the lack of security assurance and the absence of free shipping. Your post has great advice for business to tweak their checkout process and page, hope they can read this too!

    • says

      Yeah, here’s hoping, Azalea! I think optimizing checkouts can seem so intimidating to web owners — usually because they’re built with restrictive third-party templates or they require custom dev work — that, even when they know how to fix them, they just don’t make it a priority.

  5. says

    Well done.
    What a wonderfully researched article.

    Very well done.

    I’d love to know what you’d recommend if you’re linking up to systems like Paypal or 2checkout.com where the options to change or even slightly modify your cart is very limited.

    • says

      Thanks, Sean – so nice of you to say! As for those pre-made carts that come with PayPal, 2checkout, etc, admittedly they’re very hard to customize. I use WooCommerce’s pre-made checkout, and although the form fields themselves can’t be customized easily, the pages in which the forms sit can be. So I add sidebars to each page of the checkout, and in those sidebars I put assurances like money-back guarantees, great testimonials, and “you’re almost done” messaging; you can also add messaging above and below the checkout forms, in most cases, which is great for value prop messaging (e.g., in your headline), repeating “free shipping, etc” and other delighters. The skeuomorph credit card is on my wishlist. :)

      The more a person’s business grows, thanks to cart improvements (and other things), the more a person ought to invest in a custom checkout solution, given how much rides on this critical part of a website. Would you agree? I know you do a lot of work in this area, Sean. :) Been reading you for a long time!

  6. says

    Thank you so much, Joanna Wiebe!

    Although I don’t have a shopping cart site [yet], the general principles are applicable to landing pages of any stripe. I’ll be using this article to rethink a few…starting with a “continue” button.

  7. says

    I definitely agree with numbers 6 and 7! Nothing creates conversions better than reassuring clients all the way through the checkout process. I think the visuals cues to help a customer understand where they are in the checkout process also really helps.

    • says

      Agreed! I didn’t get into progress bars — there’s a lot I left on the editing room floor :) — but helping people understand 1) how much work they’ve already completed and 2) how little they have left to do can improve their sense of “commitment”, as Cialdini would call it, and often boost conversion rates / reduce abandonment.

  8. says

    Wow, it’s a great article! A lot of studies about human mind within mktg strategies :) nice and wired at the same time :p thanks for sharing!!!

  9. says

    Great article! I love how it all comes back to user experience. Making it easier for the user in every way possible helps the entire process of checking out to go faster and smoother leading to more sales.

  10. says

    I loved this! I cannot even begin to count how many carts I left because they did not pay for shipping.

  11. says

    I wish somebody from Woocommerce would read this article and finally make checkout page and fields more customizable or at least default styling more user friendly.

    Being the owner of 4 online shops I’ve used several ecommerce platforms from Magento to Woocommerce as well as countless themes and plugins. It seems that most developers don’t use checkout fields themselves and have no clue that product pages and checkout fields are the most important part on ecommerce site.

    Regarding split testing, keep in mind that in order to actually get insightful data you need enough traffic and transactions. For smaller online shops it might take months. There is nothing better than test it yourself, place 10 test orders on your site, it should be enough to get an idea what is wrong with your checkout, get rid of things you don’t like if you know how or can afford a developer.

    Thanks for a great article! Back to my beloved Woocommerce, firebug/inspect element, custom functions and css :)

  12. says

    With Amazon ruling much of the online game and offering free or prime shipping to customers, it’s almost an imperative to offer free shipping. Personally, I like deals where “everything is included” for a highlighted price. It takes the worry out about hidden handling fees and end of cart gotchas that make me cringe.

  13. says

    What a fantastically well researched article! That Traffic U example looks great. I love the reassurances at the point of purchase.

    Thanks also for the shoutout to LongHaul.com.au :)

    Behind the scenes we actually *always* create an account, it’s just that in order to create an account we only ask for email address, even if you click the “sign up” button.

    If someone enters an email address that we’ve not seen before we send them an email asking them to choose a password. Once they’ve chosen a password they can have their data pre-populated next time.

    I’m also a huge fan of the “if you don’t need it, don’t ask for it” principle in UI design. When I built that shopping cart I really wanted to have absolutely no friction in the purchase process.

    For example, we ask people to rate the store *after* their purchase is complete; and right after we ask for their rating we ask if they’d like to subscribe for monthly sales emails.

    I was astounded to find that the majority of people not only stuck around to rate the store but also selected to receive sales emails.

  14. Chad R. says

    2 Questions:

    1). Have you seen or done any tests with video used on the shopping cart page? (examples: customer testimonial, benefits emphasized by the author of an information product, etc.)

    2). For ecommerce, what are some developer- / customization-friendly shopping carts? (what kind of setups have found to be successful for small ecommerce companies)

  15. says

    Amazing article. Forced registration – what a failure! If there’s anything that puts me off, it’s having to register to find out what shipping will cost – how about I don’t register and I buy it from elsewhere?

    • says

      Totally, Frederik! I think marketers have long been downplaying the reality of shipping costs — including hiding those costs as if customers won’t notice — at the expense of their business growth. I know it’s expensive to pay shipping; you know it is; we all know it is. But if marketers stick their heads in the sand and don’t at least a) show shipping costs earlier, b) do your best to position those costs as affordable (which any copywriter should be able to do!) and c) actually make those costs more affordable, it seems unlikely that their bizzes will grow by leaps and bounds.

  16. says

    Thanks for the great article Joanna!

    A couple more interesting things to add. Rather than asking for the type of card used in payment, you can auto-detect this based on the first numbers – http://webstandardssherpa.com/reviews/auto-detecting-credit-card-type.

    For UK sites, you also should never ask for County information – Counties have not been used to deliver goods since 1996! First line of address and postcode is enough.

    Also if you fancy some more information on the downside of offering users the opportunity of using discount and coupon code, we wrote a blog with some examples and alternatives – http://www.formisimo.com/blog/the-perils-of-voucher-codes/

  17. says

    Great article Joanna, there is some real gold here! The psychology behind creating successful and high converting shopping cart experiences is something I love to read about. I have implemented some changes on client sites using tips in your article and I am seeing the benefits. Many thanks.

  18. says

    Are there ecommerce platforms that allow for testing better than others? Or are there some platforms that have more customizable checkouts? I’m currently dealing with a proprietary platform that is all table based and difficult to modify securely.

  19. says

    Hi Joanna,

    Your articles are so incredibly researched and filled to the brim with helpful information. I see many blogs are now going this direction and I truly think you were one of the first trend setters here.

    You make 1000 words seem shallow. :)

    I’m curious to know how much time you normally spend on articles like this, including the research and formatting, getting the screenshots, etc. ?

    It appears more and more folks are recognizing that depth and detail (which requires time) is the best blog approach, verses spitting out a post every day that’s only 750 to 1200 words of repeated content or just shallow.


  20. says

    Such a great and useful post Joanna, thank you very much.

    From my own experience, complicated forms and bad UI is the reason that make me abandon shopping cart.

    Also, giving a customer options to get discount by login with their social profile, Facebook, Twitter or G+, can motivate them to register, make their purchase viral and bring more potential customers.

    Btw, I read lot of comments that people having problem with e-commerce platforms and customizing forms. I suggest you to use http://opencart.com, it’s free, open source and fully functional and customized. It’ have lot of free and paid plugins.


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