Some guys hike the Appalachian trail or scale Mount Whitney, Kilimanjaro or even Everest.
I choose to walk the path to purchase, most recently with the goal of buying some casual black shoes.
OK, so I’ve got a low adventure threshold. But I’d been reading about this path to purchase for some time. It’s an obsession with retailers and marketers because it’s the buzz phrase that describes how shoppers are coming at products from all angles now -- in store, on phones, tablets, laptops and desktops.
It’s a lot to stay on top of. Which mode delivers the surest sales, the best customers, the most repeat business? You knew there wasn’t an easy answer. It turns out the answer is all of them. (Please, don’t make me use the word “omni-channel.”)
It seems that flawless execution on all those channels is what it's all about. Let’s just say there are no shortcuts on the path to purchase. Traditionally, marketers have talked about the buying process as a funnel, a smooth, swirling journey from awareness to interest to desire to purchase. In fact, the path is more like a plate of spaghetti, with tangles, switchbacks and detours that lead to discovery. Or as Millward Brown Digital put it in its white paper on buying shoes (OK, athletic shoes):
“In adapting to this new path to purchase reality, the best thing marketers can do is make sure their strategy does not depend on a linear sequence of events. When each independent step along the path is improved, the end result will be more purchases, regardless of how consumers got there.”
It's one of those "eat your broccoli" truths for retailers; surveys show they know how important providing a good experience for customers is across all channels. Eighty four percent of retailers, in fact, told Retail Systems Research last year, that providing a consistent experience for customers in-store, online, on mobile etc. was very important to their strategy.
But retailers have their doubts about whether they are actually delivering on that goal, in large part (according to 54 percent of those surveyed) because retailers say they don't have a comprehensive view of customers across their different discovery and sales channels.
It’s a lesson I learned over the weekend on my own journey for the perfect pair of black casual shoes. I started at Macy’s, where I’d happily purchased Rockport shoes a few times. Going to the store put me in a similar category with the 71 percent of shoppers who prefer to look at or try on athletic shoes in person, according to Millward Brown.
I was quickly drawn to a pair of Clarks on display. A sales associate asked me if she could help and I asked to try on a pair of 8 1/2s. Too big. I asked to try a size 8. For some reason, the men’s shoe department and the stockroom of actual men’s shoes were nowhere near each other, meaning the associate was gone for long enough that I started comparing prices elsewhere on my phone.
The Macy’s price was good. The size? Not so much. The 8s were still too big. The sales associate mentioned that Clarke’s run big. Then she interrupted our conversation to help another customer before taking off on her cross-store odyssey to snag a pair of 7 1/2s for me.
Too snug. I kid you not. By now, I was feeling a little frustrated and a little like my whole Saturday was about to vanish into the black hole of black shoe shopping at Macy’s.
“You know,” I said to the associate, who by now seemed to be listening but not hearing me, “I’ve always liked Rockport. I’ve never had trouble with the fit.”
She gamely said she could show me some other shoes. “How about Ecco?”
That was my cue to explain that I had to rush off to meet my wife and daughter for lunch. In the vernacular of e-commerce, I bounced.
Next, I did what 29 percent of shoppers prefer, according to the Millward Brown report: I hit the Web, which those surveyed said they liked because of better prices, better selection, easier comparison and more convenience. I first went to the big dog, Zappos, which has billed itself as the world’s biggest shoe store, and which is now owned by Amazon.
But when I typed “black men’s casual shoes” into Zappos’ site search, I was served up a page that led with three pair of red rock climbing shoes, one pair of black climbing shoes and three types of shoe trees. I bounced again.
Next, I went to the Kohl’s site, a site that I’ve had great success on when shopping for clothes. Again, “black men’s casual shoes” and bingo, a full page of shoes that -- save for one brown pair -- were actually black and causal (and shoes, for that matter).
But alas, no Rockport at Kohl's and so I bounced again. In fact, I bounced and returned to Macy’s, but his time Macys.com, where I was able to search for Rockport shoes and discover a wide selection, including the very sporty On Road Walking Sneakers that I ended up buying.
I’m not sure the shoes’ name is terribly descriptive, but I figure if I’m going to be journeying down many more paths to purchase, having some walking sneakers certainly won't hurt.
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach's storyteller. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy