What Are Consumers’ Current In-Store Shopping Behaviors: Playing in an Omnichannel World
by Clay Dethloff

  • Shopper Research

    In today’s world, what role do retail stores and establishments play in the consumer’s purchase journey? What are your customers actually doing inside your retail store or establishment when they purchase a product or service? As a retailer, how do your “brick and mortar” establishments fit into the consumer’s purchase journey, compared to online shopping?

    The answers to these questions define omnichannel, which seems to be the “word of the year.” From using smartphones to browsing multiple stores, omnichannel shopping represents the numerous ways customers can (and do) interact with your products and services.

In order to understand the omnichannel experience, it is important to understand the shopper’s complete purchase journey. As the consumer’s path to purchase has become more intricate, we have found that the most complete understanding of their shopping journey often comes from a hybrid research approach consisting of probing/questioning and observational methods (both inside and outside the store). One of the most effective ways to understand their in-store shopping behaviors is to conduct shop-along research. Shop-along research allows you to see what customers are doing in your in-store environment, and depending on the goals of the research, either moderated shop-alongs or virtual shop-alongs help to fill in the understanding.

Based on our research into omnichannel consumer interactions, in-store shopping occasions often seem to be heading into one of two very distinct directions: those times when consumers are looking “for” something and those times when consumers are just looking “around.” Two personal experiences illustrate the difference between just shopping around versus looking for something specific. These two scenarios point out two of the roles that brick-and-mortar retail establishments play in today’s environment.

The other day I went to the grocery store with a list of about 10 items—things I was looking for:

  • 8 of the 10 items had a specific brand name attached to them. I was probably going to buy these brands no matter the price.
  • 5 of the 10 items were associated with a sale I had seen in a circular. These were items that I normally purchase anyway, but I was looking for cost savings from the sale.
  • 1 of the 10 items I had never purchased before. It was for a new recipe to try.

I ended up walking out with 11 items: the 10 I came in for plus one other. In essence, my in-store experience was primarily looking for something, targeting those items, and then getting out as quickly as possible.

My second example centers on buying a birthday present for one of my grandchildren who lives out of state. My wife and I really didn’t know what to get him, but we knew it would need to be shipped (and therefore purchased online). We started searching online, and frankly, there were so many options that it was hard to figure out what to get him. I felt I was spending too much time going through all of the possibilities (even when using online filters suggesting male/female, age ranges, etc.). We got in the car and went to a retailer to actually see and touch some different products. We found what we wanted and went back home to order it online. Our in-store experience was just looking around, wanting to see, feel, touch, and ultimately use the store (which had a narrower selection) to help us make a decision.

Going back to the in-store looking “for” mode … the information gathering and the looking around is usually happening outside of the store environment prior to the visit (from the internet, apps, friends, etc.) or the consumer is on “auto-pilot” and repeating past purchase behaviors.   Our shop-along research confirms these two scenarios play out for a broad range of consumers. In either case mentioned, honing in on something specific often causes consumers to tune out other brands or stimuli so that they will not be distracted or be influenced by outside forces. Once in the store environment, shoppers have often narrowed their focus to a specific type of product (the new phone that just came out), a brand, a style, or even a color.

One of our clients discovered this dynamic when we conducted a study looking at their different product lines. One of the client’s products was doing extremely well, while the other products were not, even though they could all be seen within eyeshot of each other in the store. In talking with and observing their customers, we found their loyal customers of the one product really didn’t even know that the other products were out there, and they were actually tuning out everything else. Essentially, they had identified what they wanted prior to the store, and they were honing in on their target, ignoring all other distractions.

On the other hand, there are times when customers consider looking around to be important, such as with products that are more complex or more individualized. Customers come to the store to see what is there, and that helps them to make sense of their options. Typically, these customers need some kind of assistance in the decision-making process. As shown in my earlier example with buying a present for my grandchild, I simply needed a way to help simplify my decision (in reality limiting the choices that I was offered).

In our work with another manufacturer, we found that the primary driver for customers coming to the stores was to touch and feel the product, and their first purchases of a product were almost always in the store. When getting a second item at a later time, many would still come in—but many would purchase online also. Interestingly, regardless of where they ended up purchasing the second item, it had changed from a “just looking” exercise to a “looking for” exercise. This same behavior is strongly identified in consumers’ online ordering for many consumer packaged goods (whether picked up or delivered), where it is often a reordering exercise of products they currently use.

These examples from research using our shop-along methodology show that you can identify how your consumers are currently using the in-store experience. This will help your stores continue to be relevant to the consumer in one way or another. Only when you know how consumers are truly using the store experience can you develop strategies and tactics to impact the purchase journey consumers have in your store or establishment.

About the Author

Clay Dethloff (cdethlo@decisionanalyst.com) is Senior Vice President, Director of Qualitative Research at Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.


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