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GUEST COMMENT The purchasing puzzle – when channel matters

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Identifying and understanding the typical ‘online’ and ‘offline’ shopper is a quest retailers have poured their time and energy into since multichannel shopping became mainstream last decade. And as brands have witnessed their operating conditions become more hostile, the need to out-compete rivals in terms of shopper insight and customer experience has become more urgent.

So much of the conversation around online shopping has been focussed on it as a channel of convenience. And while it’s true that the ease and simplicity of shopping online is one of its major attractions, the complex dynamics of what motivates us to make a purchase online rather than in-store mean we shouldn’t attribute too much weight to a single factor.

To unpack buying preferences, we must distinguish a purchase decision from the broader shopping journey. Treating ‘online vs offline’ shopping as a binary concept is misguided; shopping is far more likely to be seen as a single purpose that can be achieved in a number of ways, and many consumers will switch between online and offline environments several times before deciding to purchase.

However, regardless of the extent to which consumers mix shopping styles in the run up to a purchase, they will actively opt to buy a product or service in a specific way. Understanding how and why they do this can give retailers a richer knowledge of their customers.

We used Kantar Media’s TGI data to explore the different attitudes and behaviours exhibited by online and offline purchasers (and remember, we’re talking about purchasing specifically rather than shopping) across three distinct categories: clothing, cosmetics and automotive.

We wanted to establish how a shopper’s choice to purchase offline or online correlates with other criteria that might influence their purchase decision, to build a more accurate picture of their attitudes and motivations, and look at how retailers can capitalise on them.

The results reveal that there are number of cross-generational behaviours common to shoppers choosing to buy certain items online or offline.

It’s not all (always) about price

Ecommerce has opened a world of shopping options, and the sheer choice on offer in a single place is an opportunity for consumers to research the best (often lowest) price in search of a deal.

But our data shows that, when purchasing clothing or cosmetics products, online and offline purchasers view price as being equally important, meaning those buying online are no more likely to be converted to purchase by price-based marketing than those shopping in a store.

The same holds true for the quality and brand of a product. So, consumers choosing to purchase items online will be as receptive to aspirational messages centring on product superiority and brand equity as those who opt for a tangible in-store experience. This hints at the attitudes that have spurred the success of online luxury fashion boutiques such as Net-a-Porter, which aim to bring the high-end shopper experience to purchasing online.

And when we examine the purchases of very high value items such as cars, this behaviour still rings true. Those buying cars both online and offline rate price as an equally important factor in their purchase decision. However, those buying online will make the most of the resources at their fingertips on the internet, visiting price comparison websites to help make their choice and potentially seek out lower cost options. What this pattern also demonstrates is that consumers are now happy making their biggest purchases online, if the conditions are right for them to do so.

In short, retailers must be considered in how and when they deploy price-focussed messages or promotions; it’s possible that some consumers will even be put off by low-price online offers that don’t reflect other influences on their purchase decisions.

Digital discernment

The internet is the most popular reference tool of our time, and this is shaping why people choose to purchase online. Our data suggests that online purchasers of clothes and cosmetics are likely to be more discerning shoppers overall, registering as being more interested in product details such as: ingredients, ease of care, composition and provenance – particularly environmental credentials – compared with those purchasing offline.

It’s important to remember at this point, that the fact that this group of shoppers is purchasing online does not mean they have not also visited a store to touch, feel and try out an item. It’s simply that those shoppers who care most about the finer details of what they are buying have a greater tendency to purchase online.

In fact, shoppers who bought cars online were significantly more likely to have used the internet to research different dealerships before purchasing than those who bought their car offline. This suggests that online purchasers visited a greater number of bricks and mortar dealerships than those who ended up buying in a physical store.

Similar to their counterparts shopping for clothing and cosmetics, they were interested in understanding as much as possible about the product, emerging as more likely to care about the origin of the manufacturer and the kind of financial deal they are being offered (including factors such as the congestion charge and length of warranty).

Making information easily available for would-be purchasers, and in some cases actively targeting shoppers with insights into the products they’re considering buying, is a way for retailers to turn this thirst for knowledge to their advantage.

Advertising attitudes

Across the board, those who purchased online showed a greater propensity for being influenced by advertising, with shoppers in all three categories being more likely to respond to advertising messages, perhaps because they have a deeper level of engagement with the brand they are purchasing from.

In the case of people shopping online for clothes and cosmetics, online product reviews and recommendations from family and friends held particular weight, hinting at the value building brand advocacy can offer retailers.

Above all, retailers must understand that online purchasing is not the preserve of the young; all the behaviour we found to be exhibited by online purchasers was equally common amongst older and younger age groups. It’s no longer enough to assume that a consumer will shop in a certain way, directed by their demographic – the purchasing puzzle is far more complicated and interesting.

Anne Benoist is director, insight solutions at Kantar Media

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