Giri Agarwal
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Fri, April 07, '2017

The Path-to-Purchase is dead - part 1

Consumers are more complex than a linear 4-step process. Retailers and brands must be smarter than to box shoppers, and their customer engagement strategy, into a decades old construct that no longer applies.


In 2010, Forrester Research called for the death of the marketing funnel – a linear, top-down progression of shopper buying decisions. Credit where it is due – they were ahead of their time in recognizing the seismic shift in the relationship between brands and consumers.

Shopper buying decision progression

However, as if unwilling to truly commit to their sharp insight, they offered to replace it with – you guessed it – another linear model that boxes shoppers into four (4) stages: Discover > Explore > Buy > Engage.

We understand the post industrialization complex most management principles and marketing frameworks suffer from – that of the need to optimize. This invariably leads to frameworks and templates that can be adapted en-masse and applied to large segments of shoppers.

The move from a marketing funnel to this seemingly new path-to-purchase is old (still useful in some instances) wine in a new bottle. So, today we bury the Path to Purchase.

Reverse Information Asymmetry

As recently as two decades ago, brands and retailers were on the sunny side of information asymmetry – customers knew little else about products, promotions, pricing or availability than through retailer / brand communication. With ubiquitous Internet availability and smartphone penetration, it is amazing how quickly we’ve gone past it being a level playing field to a point where consumers, in the words of the great philosopher JB Smoove, have topsy-turvied that (expletive deleted).

Topsy turvy

Breaking the Linearity

Just having more information would not have been enough to obliterate the path-to-purchase. With the advent of social media, saturation-level smartphone adoption and increased consumer conditioning relating to online shopping, came the ability to do things with that information that shook the foundations of the stack-em-high, watch-em-fly school of retailing.

That a shopper could be in their store, pick up a product from the shelf, compare prices right there, and order it from a competitor was such a grotesque idea for most retailers, they didn’t (initially, or immediately) realize the new reality it underscored – the path to purchase was no longer linear.

Customer standing in front of pile

I’m just a consumer, standing in front of an aisle, asking it to be showroomed.

Streams of Engagement

The lack of linearity – the fact that consumers could jump from one “phase” of the path-to-purchase to another – was easier to handle for brands and retailers when they bracketed each destination (stores, web, mobile, social) as having a primary role in one “phase” or the other. Stores are for commerce. Social is for engagement.

Over the next few years where consumers engage and where they transact – will converge. This is already playing out with the exponential rise in 3rd party mobile apps, marketplaces, social commerce (buy buttons), conversational commerce (messaging platforms) and other emerging platforms that may or may not be directly controlled by retailers and brands.

This blurring of these lines will be the final nail in the coffin of the traditional, linear path-to-purchase as we know it.

In the short to medium term, the path-to-purchase will continue to be relevant - especially for certain categories such as cars, expensive electronics and appliances. It will also offer the closest approximation of an “optimized” marketing framework for those that need to rely on industrialized marketing processes, templates, know-how and enabling software.

However, it is time marketers started looking beyond the path-to-purchase - towards the overall customer experience as one giant moment of truth. More on that in Part 2.