"May you live in interesting times". This 'famous" Chinese proverb turns out to be neither a proverb nor Chinese, but whoever coined it (most likely an American 30-40 years ago), did so intending it to be an ironic comment on the turbulence of modern life - and the stress of going through it.
There's no doubt that there is no more 'interesting' space right now that the noisy clash between the online and offline worlds. The old and new are colliding, and the collisions have become more frequent and radical over the past 10 years with the explosion of social media and the fragmentation of modes of communication. Bill Gates said (amongst many other things) "We overestimate changes that will occur over two years, and underestimate changes that will occur over ten years". However, it seems the first part of this aphorism may now be redundant.
Nowhere are changes of behaviour more evident that in ecommerce and the way people now go shopping. The traditional purchase funnel that e-marketers talk about - visit site, browse category page, view product page, start check out, complete purchase - can no longer to relied upon to tell us much in isolation. For years this funnel has been used to justify ROI on marketing campaigns, but it does not cut it anymore. If we look at the myriad of ways that people research, browse and purchase, the pathways begin to resemble more that of a fish than a funnel, with numerous meanderings upstream and downstream before arriving at the head. This vivid analogy was coined by the Futures Company, who's Head of Strategy, Lloyd Burdett, I recently heard presenting at the Internet Retailer conference in London.
Let's look at an example - we typically see conversion rates from smartphones considerably lower than from desktop or tablet amongst our clients, and this is even with properly responsive or optimised mobile sites. This is to be expected, since the new shopping behaviour we are witnessing shows people use their mobiles for browsing, checking and price comparison far more than actual purchasing when on the move. However, as online and offline shopping habits merge closer together we can expect more sophisticated mobile touch points- for example the downloading of promotional codes or incentives to drive shoppers to the tills in store. Add this to the huge expansion of retargeting and email marketing strategies over the past few years, and we can see that a transaction can be the result of multiple touch points along the way, and on two axes - not just channel - email, advertising, organic search, and paid - but also by device. Making sense of all this so you can attribute value properly to your marketing efforts is an ever more complex challenge.
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Lloyd came up with some interesting statistics on the changes in shopping behaviour - households and shopping baskets are increasing in number but decreasing in size - which means people are now shopping more often (driven by online) but for smaller amounts. Male behaviour also differs significantly from women's - when you do the analysis, women spend longer browsing and considering before purchasing, whereas men take more risk with the purchase decision. But what is true for both genders, despite their different habits, is that there is now much less margin for error. Questions shoppers now routinely ask themselves include "Can I get this cheaper elsewhere? In a few months? Do I need all those features? Is there a coupon code for this?" Part of this of course is driven by the economic climate - people are now very cost conscious. But they also want flexibility, but not in a way that makes it more complex.
As an example, Marks and Spencers's "Dine for 2 for £10" offer - is a brilliantly simple yet flexible offer, which appeals to both people trading down and saving money (the next best thing to going out to a restaurant, but much cheaper) as well as trading up (fine food and wine for a bargain price). It's also because people are trying to simplify their lives - we are bombarded by so much information and noise that buying decisions are no longer driven by convenience, but by what Lloyd called 'simplexity'. Flexible, to fit in with our needs, and yet at the same time simple to grasp and understand. What used to be all about saving time has now become about saving energy and headspace.
A great example of where online shopping is leading the way here is Click and Collect, which ticks the flexible box as well as the simple and stressless. Another great example is Zipcars - instead of owning a car, with all the headspace headaches that brings (tax, insurance, repairs, parking etc), or renting a car from a fixed location (getting there, getting back, paperwork, license, deposit, queuing), you can join a club and pick one up in minutes within yards of your house, provided you live in an urban location.
So the big opportunity for retailers is to embrace this sea change in what consumers now want. The purchase fish shows how complex life has become. The challenge is how to offer products and a shopping experience that gives the shopper back simplicity.