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The Long and Winding Customer Journey

By Andy Wood, Managing Director, GI Insight

Understanding how consumers use various touch points to research and buy different products is essential to gaining full customer insight in today’s multichannel marketplace. Andy Wood explores the implications for CRM and marketing.

UK consumers today face an almost bewildering choice of channels when it comes to engaging with brands. The high street, the industrial park, the website, email, the catalogue, direct mail, interactive television, SMS, mobile apps and social media are all part of the rich mix of touch points that make tracking the customer journey more of a challenge than ever before. And for companies operating in this dynamic and competitive environment, understanding consumer behaviour on a multichannel level is becoming ever more crucial for the successful management of their customers.

Multiple touch points
Do today’s consumers even have a preferred channel? Well, it can depend on what they are buying. Few, in fact, limit themselves to one channel for both researching then purchasing a product or service. But far from viewing consumers as fickle and indecisive when they consult not only a high street store but also a brand’s website and relevant social media pages before making a purchase, companies must use all data to hand to analyse, interpret and then address customer behaviour. Only then do they stand a chance of growing loyalty and building sales through tailored communications and offers that demonstrate genuine insight.

Where once businesses debated bricks and mortar versus mail order, today the retail landscape is multifaceted and multi-dimensional, and the question has moved onto how they use various channels.  The key to understanding this is to look at how consumers use the multiple channels at their disposal for different parts of the decision-making and purchasing process. The latest research from GI Insight shows there is logic to consumer behaviour across multiple channels. Understanding this on an individual level can be crucial to managing customers effectively – getting them to remain loyal, to buy more with each transaction, and to purchase more frequently. 

Mixing bricks and clicks
The research shows that, when it comes to their favourite brands, consumers are comfortable mixing their points of interaction, with 63% of the 1,000 UK consumers surveyed revealing they buy from both the websites and high street stores of the companies they purchase from the most. Indeed, despite the boom in online shopping, consumers today still use high street stores (and other bricks and mortar outlets such as shopping malls and retail parks) to examine and test a great many products prior to final purchase. So, despite the rise of the quick and easy internet purchase, shopping is still not a one dimensional activity that begins and ends with an instant transaction: more than ever it is a social experience, it takes place across channels, and it does not require point of purchase to be the same as point of perusal.

Increasingly, traditional high street stores are venturing online, with brands such as John Lewis and Next establishing a powerful digital presence. And, not to be outdone, pure online players are themselves entering the high street market, with Amazon reportedly establishing its first physical outlet this year to offer customers the opportunity to purchase its Kindle products in-store, believing this could boost sales amongst impatient shoppers and those sceptical of buying sight unseen. When Amazon, arguably the world’s most successful online retail business, acknowledges that the high street is far from obsolete, it signals that the multichannel relationship is here to stay – at least for now. 

Product category affects channel choice
Although the business of selling uniform products such as books and CDs – products which easily fit through the letterbox and can be just as successfully vetted online as in-store – works well as a web-only enterprise, many retailers are learning that marketing more varied and bigger products ranging from the latest fashions to consumer electronics to outdoor furniture requires a more complex approach. Indeed, GI Insight’s research confirms that the type of product being purchased has a major effect on the path of the customer journey: 73% of consumers prefer to examine and test bulky products (such as bicycles, garden tools, playpens, furniture) in person and 69% choose to check out and try on fashion items (such as clothes, shoes, sunglasses, accessories) in-store, even if they make their final purchase online. The majority (60%) even prefer to look at and test electronic products such as televisions, DVD players and computers in-store before buying – whether in the shop or later over the internet. This behaviour is in stark contrast to the purchase of standardised products (such as CDs, DVDs, books, batteries, light bulbs and kitchen utensils) – where the trend is reversed: 69% say they make these types of purchases directly online. 

Redeeming loyalty rewards
The research also uncovers that UK consumers are almost evenly split when it comes to the channel they prefer to redeem their loyalty points through: 54% in store versus 46% online. Clearly, retailers should not presume that customers will redeem their points via the channel of purchase and, in fact, should ensure loyalty scheme members are rewarded with vouchers and points which can easily be used via either channel. 

Implications for sales staff
It is clear, then, that the modern shopping experience does not involve the straight emergence of a single channel – and no savvy retailer today would wed shoppers to one specific location, physical or virtual. On the contrary, staff dealing directly with consumers across any channel need to be trained to respond to the customer’s preferences and likely customer journey. For instance, if store based staff realise a customer is researching a product in store with the intention of later purchasing online, they should be ready and able to issue a limited time voucher for a web purchase, enabling them to capture a consumer’s business and secure their loyalty to the overall brand. Currently, there are very few cases in which retailers provide an incentive to purchase from a brand’s website when a customer is clearly browsing in-store. In the new multichannel environment where shops are used as showrooms, this needs to change.

Implications for customer communications
UK consumers typically arrive at the point of purchase via a combination of channels – their journey is rarely linear – and employing data and analysis to derive insight on the customer journey to inform appropriate actions along the way is essential to the future of any successful operation. As the research shows, the customer journey may be complex and winding but, by the same token, it is not wholly unpredictable. If a firm can see that specific products trigger certain types of behaviours and trends, then it can use that insight to tailor post, email and other communications. For instance, if the data shows that a customer tends to browse online first before going in-store, the communications don't need to push a product but rather the website as a source of information, providing relevant content to make the brand stand out. Or if analysis tells a company that multichannel customers are more loyal and valuable than a single channel customer, it can mould communications to get a store-only customer to become an ecommerce customer too, and vice-versa.

Recognising, then, that bricks must coexist with clicks, brands should develop relationships which harness multiple touch points so consumers get more from their retail experiences – whether perusing in-store, checking a catalogue, browsing online or receiving an offer on a smartphone. This process can start even before a customer goes online or visits a store with a longer-term communications programme that uses data to address the consumer’s behaviour and build loyalty through tailored offers demonstrating genuine insight. Appreciating that customers regard brands in a holistic fashion ensures relationships are grown and nurtured regardless of channel.

Implications for customer databases
The key to all of this is applying the customer data an organization has to hand, such as transaction details and information supplied on web forms, and not keeping it in silos. That means collecting it properly in one database for all channels and then analysing it to see what the trends are and what preference and behaviour categories individual customers fall into. Getting a grip on what customers buy, what they are spending, and how they purchase in order to determine how better to motivate them to remain loyal or to purchase more and more frequently is fundamental to a successful brand in today’s multichannel marketplace.

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