The Essential Guide to Shopper Journey Research

Image of the post author Jodie Shaw

Every shopper embarks upon a journey when purchasing desired goods or services. That journey can differ dramatically among various types of audiences. On the other hand, certain aspects of the shopper’s journey are similar, regardless of the product or service involved. This is where organizations can benefit dramatically by mapping the customer journey.

A comprehensive understanding of the customer experience enables businesses to: 

  • Refine offerings and identification of gaps in what a company offers 
  • Pinpoint relevant marketing channels and promote targeted offers
  • Deliver on customer expectations
  • Respond to ever-evolving customer preferences
  • Anticipate customer needs and boost retention

Agile adaptation is key to any business’s long-term success. As we have noted before, “many sales and marketing leaders take for granted that they know what their customers need.” Assumptions like these can prove costly and lose business and trigger a loss in customer retention rates.

By contrast, when you know your offerings suit current and emerging customer needs, your business will develop a reputation for being wholly customer-centric that your competitors can’t match. 

Digging Deep into Customer Needs and Preferences

What are you attempting to uncover through shopper research? Information that describes customer behaviour is key, with many elements that fit together for a broader picture. These elements include insights into:

  • Why do consumers contemplate buying a product? 
  • Why do they ultimately decide not to make a purchase?
  • Buying behaviours of different target audiences 

Conducting shopper research isn’t just about identifying shortcomings in how to deliver what people want. This information enables companies to undertake proactive steps that anticipate changing trends in shopper preferences and behaviours. Ultimately, pinpointing innovative ways to reduce gaps between your business and customer needs can result in a significant boost in customer acquisition and retention.

It’s essential to recognize that a wealth of data may already exist in your company. Everything gleaned from business analytics, and customer survey scores to the reasons behind customer service calls offer potential insights into customer behaviour. This is an excellent place to start with your research to reduce any duplication in data mining.

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Incorporate Quantitative and Qualitative Research

Broadly speaking, two types of research into customer experiences yield the most helpful insights. 

The first is quantitative, a kind of “view from 30,000 feet” of consumer behaviour. The process involves gathering numerical data points to help establish trends and patterns of behaviour. The benefits lie in a deeper understanding about:

  • Broad groups of individuals
  • How different groups of shoppers behave (designated, for example, by age, gender, or market) 
  • Reducing complicated issues around shopper behaviour into a clear-cut number of factors

Among the most useful tools to employ are online surveys, where consumers can be asked (a) about the decision that led to a purchase; (b) what obstacles prevented them from buying; (c) the type of research they conducted before purchase, and (d) what, if any, competitors they considered. 

Demographic data on the makeup of a “typical” shopper is also helpful. This can include information on age, gender, income level, etc., which can lead to creating buyer or shopper personas (more to come below). 

The raw data produced by quantitative research can be analyzed through a range of online tools that helps closely define who wants to buy a particular product or service and predict future customer behaviour. 

Qualitative research aims at drilling down for more precise insights than typically yielded by quantitative study efforts. In general, this approach is more human-focused and relies less upon numbers and figures. What counts is gaining a better grasp of what customers have to say. The objective is to explore “the more intangible and subjective reasons why customers behave the way they do.” 

While there may be occasional overlap in quantitative and qualitative research methods, the latter is designed to zero in on identified target populations to examine more closely what drives them to make specific buying decisions.

Tools include:

  • Open-ended questions in online surveys that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer and can also identify shopper pain points (specific problems or challenges that a given product or service can favourably address)
  • “Contextual” inquiries that focus on observing shoppers in their “native habitat” (retail outlet, e-commerce, etc.)
  • Social listening, where information is gathered from social media platforms and other online communities 
  • Shopper journals or diaries, where selected customers maintain a running record of their shopping preferences and behaviours

As part of qualitative research, direct customer interviews can be very effective. Key market questions to ask during this process may include:

  • What specific problem were you attempting to solve when you selected our product/service?
  • What made you choose us over a competitor?
  • How well did our product/service address your needs?
  • What do you like the most (and the least) about our product/service?
  • How would you rate your customer experience with our company?

A combination of quantitative and qualitative research efforts often generates the most accurate insights into why shoppers act the way they do.

Creating a Shopper Persona

What can you do with all the data you collect as part of your research efforts? One necessary action is creating a shopper (or buyer) persona—a fictional representation of your ideal customer. This can be achieved through a focus on your most loyal customers. What shopping patterns are common within this specific group? Do they share specific demographic qualities (such as age or gender)? In what ways are their experiences, motivations, and pain points alike? 

Use the answers to these and related questions to put together a profile consisting of information on a typical shopper’s purchasing decisions and objections, competitors they consider, and final determining factors that lead them to become your loyal customer. For greater ease of understanding, companies often attach a fake name and stock profile to round out the shopper persona. 

A Map of the Shopper’s Journey

It’s often helpful to translate research findings into a visual representation of the shopper’s journey. Outlining the exact steps customers undertake from first becoming conscious of a brand to actual purchase and delivery. When depicted in visual form (map, diagram, etc.), the journey becomes clearer to understand and makes it easier to address any gaps or shortcomings in the process.

In general, the shopper’s journey proceeds from awareness (shoppers recognize a problem or challenge they must contend with) to consideration (shoppers seek ways to address those problems or challenges), culminating with a decision (shoppers determine a preferred solution and begin to act on it). 

You can pinpoint where each of your existing customers stands within these three stages through a well-crafted journey map. This can prove enormously valuable for tailoring your marketing and related communications where they can have the most impact.

Also included in a journey map are clearly defined touchpoints—that is, every possible place where a shopper comes into contact with (or becomes aware of) your business. Touchpoints cover a wide range, including:

  • Customer interactions with employees
  • Business website
  • Digital content
  • Product catalogues
  • Social media platform
  • Paid advertisements
  • Third-party review sites
  • Articles in print/electronic media

The shopper journey “can rarely be represented in a linear journey from point A to point B because buyers often take a back and forth, cyclical, multi-channel journey,” notes HubSpot. To facilitate visualization of this non-linear path, “savvy business leaders use a variety of methods [ranging] from post-it notes on a boardroom wall, to Excel Spreadsheets, to infographics.” It’s critically important that “the map makes sense to those who’ll be using it.”

Take a Tour of Your Shopper’s Journey

After marshalling your resources and analyzing your data, it’s time to create a shopper’s journey map. But the process isn’t complete until you and your team take the journey map for a “spin” and see what your customers experience.

“Take time once a quarter to go through every step of the customer experience yourself,” advises Forbes. Only by adopting a “do-it-yourself” approach to shopper journey mapping “can you understand and prioritize essential changes and improvements.” 

Two key points to keep in mind:

Shopper research always means more than merely locating and identifying problems along the customer’s journey. Adopting a broader view of this research enables businesses to become more proficient in terms of customer service. When the quality of this service improves, and disgruntled customers become satisfied customers, there’s more room for upsell and cross-sell opportunities. Another powerful marketing resource is favourable word-of-mouth from shoppers who feel a business anticipates and responds to issues quickly. 

Also, customer needs and priorities never remain static. (The ever-widening ramifications of the global pandemic are a stark reminder of this fact.) Customer loyalty remains a moving target, mainly when it’s relatively easy for shoppers to move from one company to another, claiming “more improved” products or services.

In-depth shopper research and mapping helps businesses anticipate, predict, and plan for future contingencies. Companies possessing detailed shopper research and a vibrant, real-time shopper journey map are unlikely to be caught wrong-footed when shopping trends take an unexpected turn. 

Do you think you know what your customers need and want from your business? Based on your company’s experience in the industry, you may have a general idea. Still, a comprehensive understanding will only occur when you and your team conduct extensive (and highly focused) shopper journey research.

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