The Long and Winding Road to the Cash Register

I attended an interesting presentation recently as part of the Yahoo Summit Series. The presentation covered research Yahoo and OMD conducted about the purchase process across a number of categories. The study examined how people conduct their own research, then make a purchase, online and off-. Though a majority of purchases still take place offline, the research shows online plays a critical role in the process.

The study incorporates 4,301 online surveys and 13 in-depth and in-home ethnographies. OMD and Yahoo specifically looked at people with broadband access who intended to purchase within one of the following categories:

  • Autos: New or used
  • Finance: Loans or checking and savings accounts
  • Tech: Electronics or technology products
  • Retail goods: Clothing, shoes, and accessories; books; music and video games; or home improvement
  • Consumer packaged goods: Groceries, personal care products, and home cleaning products

Though consumers take varying paths to the cash register, the study shows patterns can be observed in the way people research and buy across those categories. The researchers drew some conclusions from those patterns, particularly from statements people make about their values and personality traits when they choose those patterns. The patterns and personality traits they defined and observed are:

  • Quick paths are characterized by short-time frames, typically associated with routine and impulse purchases.

    Personality traits: Decisive, lucky, competent, and seeking instant gratification

  • Winding paths involve movement between shopping channels and information sources and usually involve a relatively short timeframe to purchase decision (a few hours to a week). In this pattern, people try to make the best buying decision, taking into account price, coupon use, and advice from friends and family.

    Personality traits: Risk-tolerant, adventurous, open to new ideas

  • Long paths involve weeks to months. In this pattern, people know what they want and are willing to wait until the time is right. As part of its presentation, Yahoo showed a video of a woman who waited several months for the price to fall on a particular flat-panel computer monitor before she purchased it. People in this pattern typically shop through only one channel.

    Personality traits: Uncompromising, organized, thrifty, patient

  • Long and winding paths involve weeks to months. This pattern is associated with higher-priced items as well as technology purchases. As part of this process, the consumer does a lot of research and comparison shopping and seeks out professional and user reviews.

    Personality traits: Tenacious, driven, hard-working, independent, resourceful

The researchers went on to associate purchase patterns with the categories they observed. Across each category, they looked at most common, moderately common, and least common paths. Some findings were predictable: consumers of packaged goods typically take short paths, while car buyers take long and winding paths.

What was interesting was an analysis of brand loyalty across the different paths. In the winding and long and winding paths, there is little brand loyalty, which means there is a great opportunity to influence the consumer throughout these patterns. The research shows 30 to 63 percent of shoppers were undecided about the brand prior to shopping.

The research also suggests technology and evolving shopping patterns have changed the purchase funnel into a “tumbler,” meaning people now get lower in the funnel, then widen their consideration set as they get closer to a purchase decision. Technology has given consumers access to more information, so they’ve become an ever-shifting target. Media planners must work ever-harder to understand these patterns and broaden their approaches.

Consider this research (PDF download) next time you’re developing a media plan. Think about the paths your consumers might take, what those paths say about their personalities, and all the environments into which your consumers will enter. It will likely result in a much more diverse media plan, including things like blogs, mobile platforms, podcasts, shopping engines, instant messaging platforms, and who knows what else.

If you’ve implemented a media plan that takes these sorts of consumer patterns into account or are considering doing so, let me know how it goes.

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