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Understanding the Customer Journey

In today’s multichannel world, shoppers have myriad ways to connect in-store and digitally. Consider these suggestions to navigate changing consumer habits and enhance experiences

graphic of man with binocularsThere was a time, not that long ago, when a consumer’s path to purchasing a product was straight and direct.

It started with an awareness of a particular product and the brands associated with it. The marketer’s job, experts used to say, was to position advertising to lead the consumer down an ever-narrowing road from awareness to familiarity to consideration and then purchase. Final steps included an evaluation process, ending, ideally, with loyalty to a product and retailer.

Today, buyers move past those same guideposts, but the path they follow resembles less of a straight line and more of a roundabout, with consumers entering, exiting and re-entering at various points along the way, gathering more and more information each time they go ’round.

“Shifting consumer attitudes and multiple connected devices create a chaotic reality. The traditional purchase funnel diagram, one which any marketer could sketch from memory, is officially dead. The singular, orderly sequence of purchase stages has been scrambled, and marketers need to conform. In today’s world, where consumers have access to constant information through computers, smartphones and tablets, each person’s path to purchase is complex and unique,” according to “Navigating the New Path to Purchase,” a 2018 report from Millward Brown Digital, part of Kantar Millward Brown, a brand-building firm with offices in 55 countries.

As consumers travel this new path, some people zip right through, quickly getting from their starting point to destination. Occasionally, consumers get so frustrated trying to figure out where to go and how to get there, they give up and head home.

“For consumers, there are unlimited opportunities to get distracted throughout the shopping process,” according to Millward Brown. “Consumers can get to the brink of a purchase and then regress back to researching and browsing — because it’s easy to do. … The good news: A single touch point can get them back.”

This circuitous journey with multiple on- and off-ramps presents challenges to mattress retailers, who must figure out creative ways to get consumers’ attention along the way, so they’ll stop meandering long enough either to click “Buy Now” or say, “I’ll take this one.”

Weaving the lanes

One of the biggest changes to the path to purchase is that it now has two lanes — online and offline — with consumers crossing back and forth easily between the two all along the way.

KPMG has interesting research into this. The global business services firm surveyed 18,430 consumers about their most recent online shopping experience for its 2017 report, “The Path to Purchase Journey.” You might expect that these e-commerce shoppers stayed in their online lane during their entire buying journey, but they didn’t.

The process of buying any product starts with building initial awareness that the product exists. In the KPMG survey, 59% of consumers said they first became aware of a product through one or more online channels, but 52% said they initially became aware through at least one offline channel. Remember: These were shoppers who eventually bought online, but they were gathering information both online and offline, switching from lane to lane, as it were. (In their responses, online channels included online retailers, online advertisements, social media posts/blogs, email promotions, and online articles/magazines. Offline channels included brick-and-mortar stores, talking to friends, talking to family, seeing a friend with the product, print magazines/newspapers, and seeing a product on TV/in a movie.)

And although millennials “are more likely than the older generations to be influenced by online sources such as social media or peer reviews … they also are more likely to be influenced by offline channels,” the report says. “Millennials were 25% more likely than baby boomers to have seen their most recent purchase in a shop, nearly 50% more likely to have talked to a friend about it, and more than twice as likely to say they saw a friend with it.” To reiterate: Millennials are digitally driven but overall are more receptive to messaging, regardless of where they see it — an important point for retailers wanting to reach this mega-group of consumers.

Interestingly, both online and offline, retailers are a key part of overall product awareness, according to the KPMG survey, with 30% of respondents saying they first saw a product at an online retailer and 22% saying the first sighting was in a physical shop.

In the traditional path to purchase, the next steps are a consumer building familiarity with a product or brand and then considering where and how to purchase it. Here the KPMG research shows consumers relying more heavily on online resources, but not exclusively. Some 55% of consumers reported using online ratings and reviews to learn more about a product, and 47% said they checked a company’s website. But 26% of respondents visited a physical store to see or try on a product, and 23% discussed the product with their family and friends.

What factors are consumers weighing as they do their research? Price or promotions (27%), product features (23%) and brand reputation (22%) topped the list, according to KPMG.

The “final” stage of evaluation — in which buyers determine if they like the product or not, decide if they will buy it again and maybe recommend it to others — is not as “final” as it once seemed, according to the KPMG research.

“In a circular or web path-to-purchase model, the evaluation stage is at least as important as, and inextricably linked with, the awareness and consideration stages. Positive customer experiences are critical in generating loyalty and repeat purchases, and in an era of social media and increasingly trusted peer reviews, voicing customer experiences can significantly influence future buying decisions — both positively and negatively,” the report says. Of those surveyed, about 30% of consumers reported posting positive feedback online after a purchase, with younger consumers most likely to do so.

Speeding up — and slowing down

Liz Gottbrecht argues that the path to purchase is not only multilane, but that for many consumers, steps along it are merging. “For example, consider the instance that ‘awareness’ and ‘consideration’ stages happen in the same moment. Among the 100 billion searches Google processes every month, a growing number of those searches are queries of extremes,” she wrote in December 2017 in a Mavrck blog post. “New data from Google shows a significant increase in consumers searching for products ‘to avoid’ and ‘the worst’, increasing 1½ times since 2015, and mobile searches for ‘the best’ have grown 80%.” Gottbrecht is vice president of marketing for Mavrck, a Boston-based firm that specializes in influencer marketing.

She continues: “Amid the wealth of content available and its proximity to consumers today, consumers are able to research and validate their consideration for products they need or desire within moments of their initial discovery.”

Yet in its sixth annual “Path to Major Purchases” report, Synchrony Financial, a provider of consumer financial services based in Stamford, Connecticut, found that consumers are taking longer to make big-ticket purchases (more than $500), stretching the decision making from 63 days in 2016 to 81 days in 2017 — a big increase in just a year. Could consumers be suffering from decision fatigue, unsure which exit to take off that roundabout? Sure, information is available instantaneously, but is the sheer volume of product specs, reviews and ratings overwhelming?

The Synchrony research, released in November 2017, shows the majority of shoppers, regardless of where they eventually buy their big-ticket item, do some product research online — 78% of in-store buyers and 88% of online purchasers.

And it makes sense that online channels have an edge in starting consumers on their purchase journey. If you need to get somewhere these days, one of your first steps is probably to hop on your laptop or pull out your smartphone — to check traffic conditions or weather, to call a ride-sharing service or, if you’re like some of us, to text someone to tell them you’re running late.

Although “after initial research, paths for online versus in-store buyers start to diverge,” according to the Synchrony report. “For those who ultimately purchase online, their entire purchase experience is more likely to be done digitally,” while in-store shoppers do more of their research and evaluation at brick-and-mortar locations.

But while buyers of big-ticket items may prefer one lane over the other, the Synchrony research found, just like the KPMG survey, that all shoppers still are swerving between lanes along the way.

Specifically, Synchrony found that when it comes to online purchasers of big-ticket items, half check online reviews, a quarter visit a store to research products, and more than a third get financing online for big-ticket buys. In-store buyers, in contrast, visit an average of two stores before buying, with a quarter of them consulting family and friends about products, and one in five checking online reviews.

Another particularly interesting finding for retailers: The most important difference between consumers who eventually purchase big-ticket items online or in-store is the amount they spend. “In-store buyers spend an average of $2,037, while the average online big-ticket purchase is $1,433,” the report says. That’s a significant chunk of change.

Where mattress shoppers travel

In-store or online? Mattress shoppers buy via both channels but have concrete reasons for choosing where to make their purchase, according to a recent Better Sleep Council survey of 600 shoppers. Sleep Savvy Editor in Chief Mary Best discussed the intriguing results in her column in the November/December issue, Online vs. In-Store.

Mapping Your Customers’ Journey

With the consumers’ journey being rerouted by digital technologies and new shopping channels, it’s more important than ever to know how your shoppers are navigating the path to your store or e-commerce site. By doing so, you’ll know where to put the signposts to direct others your way — and make the expedition to buy a new mattress easier and more pleasant.

“Mapping your customers’ journey can help. It can give you and your team a greater understanding of how your customers are currently interacting and engaging with your brand and also help illustrate how your products and services fit into their lives, schedules, goals and aspirations,” says marketing consultant Stuart Hogg, who is based in Northampton, England. Hogg created “Journey Mapping: Connect the Customer Dots” for Primer, an app designed to improve marketing skills, and he wrote about the journey-mapping process for Think With Google last February.

He suggests following these five steps:

  1. Figure out where your customers’ goals overlap with your company’s goals. For instance, your goal might be to increase the attachment rate for adjustable bases. Your customers’ goals might include buying a new mattress that keeps them from tossing and turning all night. The overlap might come where you show them how — through marketing videos, testimonials, highlighted reviews, etc. — that an adjustable base can reduce a sleeping partner’s snoring or alleviate back pain, giving them a better night’s sleep.
  2. Determine all the places you can communicate with customers during their journey. “When do you traditionally communicate or engage with customers? Make a list of these moments and group them based on when they happen during the journey: prepurchase, purchase and post-purchase,” Hogg says. “Now, find communication touch points you may have missed. Track what actions and interactions between your brand and your customers happen just before and after each of the prepurchase, purchase and post-purchase stages.” One caveat: “Looking for all these touch points can quickly bog your team down in a lot of details and micro-interactions,” Hogg says. “To avoid that, prioritize the moments that get you closer to achieving your business goals.”
  3. Find customers’ pain points — and “moments of delight.” How do customers feel along the journey to purchase products from you? Are they thrilled that you offer next-day delivery but frustrated by the fact that you don’t give them a narrow window and they have to wait all day for you to arrive? Is it easy to find product information on your website, yet it takes a couple of days for you to answer a question submitted via the “Contact Us” form. “Find the moments where your customers might have negative experiences,” Hogg suggests. “Who on your team is involved in those touchpoints? Your web designers? Your marketing team? Your copywriters? Are there other team members who could collaborate and improve the situation?”
  4. Take the journey yourself. “Imagining how your customers might feel during their journey is valuable, but actually experiencing it for yourself can uncover much-needed insights,” Hogg says. “If your business is run online, open a browser and experience what it’s like to be your customer. Similarly, if you have a brick-and-mortar store, go into a location that sells your product. Afterward, ask yourself about the main communication touch points you encountered. Did they work well? Did they help you complete your journey? What was missing?”
  5. Make a map. “Go beyond just writing down your customer journey and communication touch points, and actually create a visual map of them,” Hogg says. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A bunch of Post-It notes on the wall will do. “By doing this exercise, you’re helping your team take a bird’s-eye view of the entire customer journey. You can organize your thoughts and collaboratively brainstorm new ideas for changing or adding to your communication at these touch points.” Hogg suggests following this mapping process annually: You never know where your potential customers might venture — and you always want them to find their way to you.

Follow Along

Visual learners may want to check out “Path to Purchase,” a video by Sean Duffy, founder of the Duffy Agency, a marketing firm with U.S. headquarters in Dover, New Hampshire. In the seven-minute video, Duffy maps one imaginary customer’s journey to buy a mattress. Follow along to see what prompts “Scott” to search for a new mattress — and how you could reach Scott to convince him to buy from you.

More to come

We’ll have more on the consumers’ path to purchasing a mattress and sleep accessories in the spring, when results of new Better Sleep Council research are released. Look for findings in a future issue of Sleep Savvy magazine and our Shop Talk by Sleep Savvy bimonthly e-newsletter.

Julie Palm
Julie A. Palm

Julie A. Palm is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has 25 years of experience as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a publications director. She is a past editor in chief of both Sleep Savvy and BedTimes magazines. She can be reached at japalm623@gmail.com.

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