Whatever your channel, the path to purchase is long and winding

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I’ve been struck recently by the number of clients interested in discussing the Customer Journey. For those with a business model focused online, this phrase largely describes the way their customers navigate the internet before hitting on their brand. For others, however, the phrase Customer Journey is used in a manner much closer to our own understanding, as a description of the process wherein the consumer recognises a need, becomes educated about the many options available (different brands, different retail channels, different price points), and proceeds, ultimately, to make a decision about what to buy.

P&G, as usual, developed the neatest definition of the Customer Journey when they identified three key Moments of Truth: Awareness, Purchase and Consumption. (Google have been keen to add a fourth – the Zero Moment of Truth – which again relates to internet navigation, but this is surely simply one avenue of Awareness – albeit increasingly important.)

When Visuality first began researching shopper behaviour, some 20 years ago, our focus was entirely on understanding the moment of purchase – the “last 10 feet to the till” as it was often described. At that time, nobody had heard of “Shopper Marketing”, nobody had a “Shopper Insight Team” and, crucially, nobody had a budget for shopper research. Our focus on the point of purchase reflected the fact that the process of conversion from shopper to buyer was genuinely poorly understood. However, it also arose out of a need to educate clients about the difference between shoppers and consumers and to explain, over and over again, why it was impossible to learn about in-store behaviour in a focus group.

In reality, this hard differentiation between shoppers and consumers was always forced. Shoppers and consumers are often one and the same. Even when they are different (Mum buying for her family), the shopper’s involvement in the extended decision about what to buy will often be deep and complex.

It has entered the mythology of shopper marketing that most purchase decisions are made in store; this is rarely true and is always an oversimplification. For many everyday items, such as a loaf of bread, the decision about which brand to buy may have been made generations ago, and maintained ever since as a family tradition.

To really understand shoppers’ decision-making processes, it is necessary to spend time with them in their home, understanding how information is gleaned, attitudes are formed and products are consumed, as well as spending time in store watching how intentions are facilitated or frustrated by the store environment.

By investing in research into the entire Path to Purchase, we can understand individuals’ decision-making processes and identify opportunities to inform and influence. Above all, we learn how consumers become shoppers and shoppers become buyers.