Is Path to Purchase the Road to Perdition?
By Dr. Stephen Needel
Many researchers and technology suppliers have become captivated by the process by which the shopper comes to select a product to purchase. This process goes by many names – the “path to purchase” and the “shopper journey” are common labels. They all involve the basic formulation of awareness, consideration, preference, intention, purchase, and loyalty. As a picture is worth a thousand words, everyone who plays in this game has their own graphical depiction of what this path looks like. There are straight paths, crooked paths, funnels, circles; I’m waiting for more creative researchers to embrace other, more exotic geometric forms. I was happy to ignore all this until I came across a website that explained the path to purchase via Taylor Swift’s dating advice.
Having conceptual models is wonderful for marketers. It imposes a big-picture perspective on the daily minutiae of marketing that can’t help but be useful. Those that embrace this in their daily work may well think they are on that yellow brick road leading to the Land of Oz. My view as a researcher is different; assuming a “path to purchase” actually exists is more likely to lead the researcher down the highway to hell than to the merry old land of OZ. There are any number problems with a path to purchase concept from a research perspective, some of them solvable, some of them unsolvable, and some we can just ignore.
Is there anything like a shopper journey? The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. When we need toilet paper, my wife tells me, I go to Walmart, and I buy the product I’ve been using for as long as I can remember (hint – I don’t squeeze it). The only journey part is getting in my car. On the other hand, when we bought a new TV this past year, I talked with friends, I looked at the ads, I went to the store, I read reviews, and then made a purchase. Then, I couldn’t help myself – I completed the circle, writing an online review a month after buying. When it comes to CPG products, I’m not sure a shopper journey happens very often.
Even when we are considering a model that appropriately describes how shopping is done for that product domain, the question of whether we can estimate that model becomes relevant. Statistically, there are tools such as structural equation modeling that would permit this. The reality, however, is that the availability of the data needed from any one person in order to estimate a model is unlikely to exist.
To date, our research approach has been silo-ed, where we worry about the individual links in a path to purchase model rather than the model as a whole. Advertising researchers worry about awareness, and how to increase the likelihood of going from awareness to consideration. Packaging researchers worry about going from consideration to preference to intention – indeed, most packaging studies use purchase intention as their KPI. Shopper marketers assume that the intention is there and worry about how to raise intention’s salience in order to make the product the shoppers’ choice. Little of this gets us to a model that is useful.
Accepting that we might only be able to understand a piece of the model at any one time does not release us from the need to validate our tools to the end of the process. A tool that reliably measures consumers’ emotional reactions to advertising, not matter how slickly, is useless if it can’t be shown that differences in emotional reaction are related to differences in purchasing. We often get in the intelligence test trap – intelligence is what intelligence tests measure. When we test pricing or packaging, we don’t really care if your purchase intent improves – purchase intent is what that 5-point scale measures and lately we’ve begun to think the same about NPS. We care about whether that price or that package generates more sales than another price or another package.
I’ve argued before, in this forum, that we need a model that describes purchase behavior and provides a theoretical framework for our brands. The model/theory should guide us in our primary purpose as researchers, which is to help our marketers change shoppers’ behavior. In the time-honored tradition of behavioral economics, I suggest stealing from old time social psychology.
Fishbein and Ajzen’s (1975) summary of 40 years of research on attitude formation and change has a very simple model. A person forms beliefs about a product and about behavior related to that product. Those beliefs combine with social norms about the product and its related behaviors to form an attitude – a predisposition to like or dislike. That belief combines with the shopping situation at the time for that person to form an intent, which leads to [purchasing] behavior. This adaptation works for any type of product, for any type of shopping trip, and focuses on behavior as the outcome. When the proper measures have been taken, we can understand what needs to be adjusted to generate the behavior we want.
Don’t spend time going down the highway to hell – work smarter.