Daniel Burstein

E-commerce: When should you reveal the price in your shopping carts?

E-commerce is a lot like magic. According to my in-depth research into the art of illusion (hey, I watched the movie “The Prestige”), there are three basic elements to the classic magic trick:

  • The Pledge (set-up)
  • The Turn (the trick itself)
  • The Prestige (the reveal)

Much like a really good magic trick, you must also have your audience join you on a convincing journey, and deliver real value to them in the end without them feeling, well, tricked. For David Copperfield, that value is entertainment without feeling lied to by the illusion itself. For the classic e-commerce purchase funnel, that value is a quality product without being shocked by an unfair price at the end of the journey.

To that end, you might say e-commerce offer presentation has three stages (which may, in fact, overlap):

  • The Interrupt (gains attention)
  • The Value (establishes appeal)
  • The Price (the reveal)

But when do you reveal price in the cart process? That was a question we received in our recent Web clinic, Shopping Carts Optimized: How a few tweaks led to 12% more revenue across an entire ecommerce website. I discussed this topic with our Director of Sciences, Bob Kemper, and here’s what he had to say…

“Rather than a universal constant (e.g., ‘Step 7’) or even a single-factor heuristic (e.g., “as soon as (x) happens”, or “not until you’ve done (y)”), optimizing the integration of pricing in the conversion process involves somewhat of a cross-section of the factors of our traditional ‘standard model’ that include thought-sequence principles and product/process-specific logistical constraints.”

In other words, there is not one right answer we can give you. You have to test to find the optimal price reveal for your cart, based on, according to Bob, the following two factors:

Price elasticity

Reveal pricing when price becomes a/the primary decision factor.  That is, for highly commoditized (highly price-elastic) products, it will be early on. For example, if someone is looking to purchase a book about Harry Houdini that they can buy just about anywhere, price is likely a major factor (likely even a key part of the “offer” as referenced above), and you probably want to lead with that price.

For exclusive, luxury or mission-critical (highly inelastic) products, reveal price later on. For example, if you’re selling a magic cape actually worn by Harry Houdini, something of which there are only a few in the world, you’d likely want to play up the offer and the product well before you get to price.

But, what if you literally sell a commodity? A product where the price is constantly shifting based on market conditions? Admittedly, this is pretty rare, but there are marketers who serve this niche. This may be stocks or bonds, precious metals, electricity, oil futures, even wholesale food sellers perhaps?

“In the case of one of my Research Partners, where prices fluctuate based on the market, it is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT to show price in each step so they know that their price was still locked in for the promised 10 minutes by the ecommerce partner,” said Research Manager Jon Powell.

Pricing model

Do you have a simple “one-size-fits-all” pricing model, or is it a highly customizable buying process?

Some cart processes are just a yes/no decision. Going back to that Harry Houdini book above, the customer likely will only have to enter a payment method and shipping info and click the “buy” button.

However, other buying processes involve extensive customization. For example, if a customer is purchasing a car through AutoNation, he will likely have to configure the color, engine, tires, air conditioning, etc. Or ordering a computer from Dell, she must configure the CPU, memory, hard drive size, software, warranty, etc.

In this case, Bob advises you test different ways to reveal “a la carte” pricing at each step of product configuration.  Later in the process, there will be opportunities to offer package discounts, premium step-upgrades, accessory incentives, etc. This multiple-stage price revelation method holds one element until very late in the conversion process, right before order confirmation.

“So, this is a kind of a ‘slow burn’ price revelation method, which can serve both to offer customer-specific discounts or incentives, and to maximize average order value,” Bob said.

Related Resources

E-commerce: How long should a shopping cart be?

Web Clinic Replay – Shopping Carts Optimized: How a few tweaks led to 12% more revenue across an entire ecommerce Website

E-commerce Shopping Carts: How a redesigned checkout process led to 13% increase in conversion rate

Shopping Cart Abandonment: How not being annoying can get you 67% more cart completions

Photo attribution: hsingy

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Categories: Ecommerce, Marketing Insights Tags: , , , , ,



  1. May 12th, 2011 at 15:43 | #1

    Bob’s answer sounds like the biggest non-answer I’ve heard this week.

    • May 16th, 2011 at 10:05 | #2

      Casey,
      Sorry you feel that way. I would like to here more of your thoughts about why you feel that way.

      We’ve learned that it is really, really popular with our readers when we give a definitive, simple answer with great authority and excitement. We’ve seen this to be true on other marketing sites and blogs as well. People love certainty.

      However, that certainty can be misleading. Even seemingly simple questions likely have complex mechanisms behind them. In the case of shopping carts, there are so many factors in play and so much variation between different offerings, there is no one right answer as to the absolute best time to reveal price in your shopping carts. The best we can do is equip you with a simple methodology to determine what is the best time to reveal price in your shopping carts.

      That said, we are always looking to please our audience. So if you prefer a simple, straightforward answer, how about…oh, let’s say…7:30 on Tuesday. That’s the absolute best time to reveal price. Work for you?

  2. May 14th, 2011 at 12:05 | #3

    Bob it looks great, but the magic doesn’t work with all customers, some customers will be shopping within price range for them revealing the price slowly will be bad idea.

  3. May 16th, 2011 at 10:43 | #4

    @Daniel Burstein
    I appreciate the response Daniel (Dan?). Being a fan of The Prestige and also one who has wrestled with optimizing client shopping carts, this topic is of real interest to me.

    As much as I love it- maybe we don’t need the movie analogy for this one. Maybe it *is* as simple as a single line quote from Bob.

    My feeling from the rest of the article was positive and I believe it hinted at one general concept- “show the freaking price as soon and as often as you can.” Whether it’s static or changes with add-ons, throw those digits into the margin or header and keep the surprises to your consumer as low as possible. This seems to be the definitive answer you can sink your teeth in for the majority of B2C shopping carts.

    I’d argue that anything else is bound to fail- Houdini cape example included. Might we reserve some area for priceless purchases though? For Rodeo Drive Divas who never ask the price? Possibly. But this is so niche, and such a minority, that I’d argue it’s worth an astric footnote and nothing more.

    Lastly, we’re creative number folk, you and I. So the *magic* in this whole process is that we can actual test & prove what we say is true. Let’s never stray to far from numbers, as they’ll ultimately choose the better trick. :)

  1. August 5th, 2011 at 09:43 | #1