Retailers and brands have long taken a keen interest in a topic fundamental to retail - what drives the decision-making process every shopper goes through when making a purchase? What influences the choices they make between different products, different brands, different outlets to buy from?

Traditionally, the decision-making that lies at the heart of every purchase has been understood as a linear process, the archetypal ‘customer journey’ that moves from brand awareness through experience/familiarity to on-the-spot consideration based on things like present need, price, convenience and so on. This gradual progression through a narrowing down of options is widely referred to as ‘the funnel’.

Then, around a decade ago, the conceptual basis of the funnel started to be challenged. Analysts like McKinsey started to wonder if the idea of a linear shopping journey led brands down the wrong path, as it were. If familiarity and experience were involved in narrowing down purchasing options, then surely there had to be a degree of circularity involved? McKinsey’s description of the customer decision journey argued that experience was a crucial factor in the evaluation process involved in shopping journeys, even proposing a short-cut to the full process of research and comparison which it called the ‘loyalty loop’.

What McKinsey’s analysis captured was that, in the age of digital commerce, consumer behaviour had changed. Now, with the internet, with marketplaces and price comparison sites, shoppers were taking a much more proactive role in the stages prior to the start of the traditional funnel. It was no longer just a case of presenting them with a set of brands to choose from through advertising and merchandising - consumers now had the tools to go out and control that initial discovery phase through their own research. The switch in emphasis from awareness to discovery has significantly altered how we view marketing and how we seek to influence consumer decision-making.

Yet a decade on, McKinsey’s model perhaps needs updating again. Because over the course of those 10 years, the number of options available to consumers to learn about products and empower their decision-making has increased dramatically. With smartphones providing always-on access to the web and social media taking peer influence global, we are now increasingly hearing brands and retailers talk about a new phase in the shopping journey prior even to discovery - inspiration.

The concept of inspiration adds to the customer decision model by highlighting that shoppers do not start from the same fixed point every time. It is not always a case of recognising need (I’m out of coffee, my trainers have a hole in them) and searching for the right product to fulfil it. With our digitally active modern lives, the inspiration and impulse to make a purchase can come from all angles - as we chat to friends on a messaging app, as we scroll through our social media feed, as we use search engines or browse favourite infotainment sites. The digital world is increasingly one giant commercial marketplace, and with more and more purchasing and payment options being added all the time, the length of the journey from inspiration to checking out has never been shorter.

To get a consumer-eye view on inspiration, we asked participants in our Future Shopper 2019 market survey to name the three places they were most likely to find inspiration at the start of a shopping journey. What the results show is that, compared to specific product search - the act of discovery when you already know what you are looking for - there are no clear preferences for which channels digital shoppers prefer to use over others. What that means is, if brands and retailers want to be in the right places to inspire the start of a shopping journey, they need to take an omnichannel approach.

As they say, you have to be in it to win it. And as far as inspiration goes, that means being everywhere your audience is likely to be.

FROM SEARCH TO SOCIAL

When we asked consumers what channels they were most likely to use for a specific product search, the surprise was that more people said Amazon (56%) than search engines (49%) - challenging some long-held assumptions about the primacy of search engine marketing in supporting online product and brand discovery.

When it comes to where they are most likely to find inspiration for purchases, more people mentioned search engines (51%) than any other channel. Yet what this does reveal is that, on both inspiration and product search, half of our survey respondents did not count the likes of Google and Bing as one of their top three options.

Clearly search still has a role to play in the formative stages of online shopping journeys, and brands need to keep on top of their SEO and paid search strategies. But for those looking for potential trends in future consumer behaviour, our results show a clear generational divide which suggest the importance of search for inspiration may diminish even further.

While search was the most popular channel for inspiration amongst 45 to 54 year olds (58%) and over 55s (59%), amongst the 25 to 34 year old Millennial group, it was mentioned by 46%, falling to just 37% of 16 to 24 year olds.

Indeed, amongst this Generation Z group, search was not even the most popular choice, and by some distance. Rather than using Google, Bing, Yahoo! Search and so on, 49% of Gen Zers told us they most often find inspiration for purchases on social media, while 43% of Millennials said the same. This contrasts to just 12% of over 55s and 20% of 45 to 54 year olds.

The simple conclusion is that social media is a young person’s game. But the fact that, according to our survey results, more people aged 34 and under turn to social media for shopping inspiration than search engines should not be taken lightly. It means that, if brands want to be front of mind when younger shoppers are making their decisions, they have to take their social marketing as seriously as their search marketing. And with social commerce starting to come of age, including the emergence of native transaction platforms being added to the likes of Instagram, there is every chance that social media will start to have a similar impact on younger shoppers further down the funnel, in product discovery and then on to purchases.

THE POWER OF BRANDS, IN-STORE AND OUT

Brand websites are sometimes depicted as the bridesmaids of the ecommerce world - always behind online marketplaces and big retailer sites when it comes to revenue, it is easy to assume that the main value in selling direct to consumers is to retain control over at least some portion of things like service, loyalty and customer data.

According to our latest survey, however, a third of digital shoppers use brand websites for product inspiration - marginally more than social media. What’s more, this is a behavioural trend that is remarkably consistent across all age groups, with a variation of just 2% across all.

What is interesting about this finding is that it suggests there is a degree of brand loyalty involved in looking for purchase inspiration. Far from being a case of basing decisions on whatever a search engine throws up, or taking recommendations on social media, it demonstrates that a significant proportion of shoppers across all age groups turn to favourite brands even before they are sure they want to make a purchase, maybe looking out for new releases or special offers.

This may also be a factor in the fact that more than a quarter of respondents (27%) said they still like to go into a store to find inspiration. Again, this figure was very consistent across age groups (just a 4% variation), suggesting it is likely to be a long-term behavioural trend. What stores can offer, of course, whether they are brand-owned or run by a third-party retailer, is unique experiences, such as product sampling and in-person events, that cannot be replicated online.

TRADITIONAL MEDIA STILL HOLDING SWAY

Finally, back in the days when the linear funnel was still the dominant model for understanding customer journeys, raising awareness about your brand and products was a fairly straightforward business - your reach was largely determined by the size of your advertising and PR budget to get you in what we now call ‘traditional media’.

With the explosion of the internet and digital communication channels, it is easy to forget that people still watch television, listen to the radio and read newspapers and magazines - both in their original print and broadcast formats, and online. Taken together, more than a third of our respondents (35%) said they still found inspiration for purchases from things like TV, digital and print publications, advertising and direct email campaigns. What is more, as a proportion, these channels were more popular among Gen Z consumers than any other age group, perhaps reflecting a relatively higher media consumption.

In summary, based on what consumers themselves tell us about their behaviour and preferences, inspiration emerges as the part of the shopping journey where everything is up for grabs. Yes, it is a big, complex world out there, and having the desired impact of kick-starting a customer into buying mode requires brands to have a presence in lots of different places, combined with creative content strategies that truly will inspire and engage. But the apparent democracy where consumers find inspiration creates huge opportunities. As digital shopping journeys shorten, the value of initial engagement is only going to rise as retailers look for ways to make that conversion of inspiration into transaction as seamless and simple as possible.

Download The Future Shopper 2019 for more in-depth insights into the latest trends in online consumer behaviour.

Download the Future Shopper 2019

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Written by Chloe Cox

Social Commerce Consultant

Chloe delivers strategic and operational direction for retailers and brands to help them navigate current and future challenges and opportunities. She also takes an active role in promoting the agenda of women in commerce.

A note about the Future Shopper 2019 survey

Research for this Future Shopper 2019 report was conducted by independent research consultancy Censuswide. A total of 15,188 consumers, who shop online at least once a month were surveyed, across 8 international markets, led by UK and US.