Consumer shopping behavior

The chasm between online retail and its brick-and-mortar counterpart is expanding, and people’s shopping preferences are evolving in turn. For storefronts, traffic and sales are declining, leaving retailers with little choice but to adapt to an interconnected world and to their customers’ shifting expectations of the shopping experience.

A great deal of research focuses on how consumers shop, but the rationale behind their chosen behaviors remains somewhat underserved. This article bridges that gap by capturing consumers’ decision-making processes—in their own words, from in-depth interviews (indicated throughout the article in italicized text), and combining these insights with secondary research that adds context, resulting in a closer look into the minds of modern retail consumers.

The shopping journey and its R’s

Three factors are evolving the shopping process and empowering consumers. Lucky for us, they all begin with the letter R: research, recommendations, and returns.

The proliferation of digital technology is giving consumers access to an unprecedented amount of product information. Not only is more information available, consumers are increasingly accessing this information—and doing their own “homework” before visiting a retailers’ venue to make their purchase. In 2014, a Deloitte study1 found that digital data influenced 49 percent of consumers before they made an in-store purchase, and analysts expect this proportion to grow to 64 percent in 2015. For some categories, particularly electronics (62 percent) and home furnishings (59 percent), destination shoppers (who have already chosen which product they want to buy from a retailer) are outnumbering traditional information gatherers who browse in stores before deciding what to buy (see figure 1).2

Historically, consumers lost their leverage once they made a purchase.3 That is no longer the case: Retailer-sponsored content—advertisements, user guides, retailer blogs, etc.—are losing out to user-generated content and reviews as the predominant influencers of purchase decisions. Consumers feel more comfortable searching online and reading expert reviews and user opinions as a first step in gathering initial information about a product or service. As evidence, Deloitte’s Digital Democracy survey4 reveals that personal recommendations (81 percent), including those from within social-media circles (61 percent), play a major role in purchase decisions. This change poses many challenges for retailers, as they have less control over the information used by customers in various stages of their shopping journey. Many retailers have built interactive features within their websites to encourage customer discussion and feedback, but these efforts may only enjoy limited success; this same research suggests that consumers trust third-party reviews more than the retailer from which they are considering making a purchase (see figure 2).5 Thus, while consumers read user-generated reviews on company websites, they tend to cross-check these with reviews provided by independent sources.