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More than an activity: How passive 'shopping' is changing the path to purchase

Article ID:
May 2013
Manila Austin

Article Abstract

This article examines the digital qualitative work Communispace conducted with the Advertising Research Foundation to uncover and explore consumers' "unconscious" shopping behavior and discusses how online and offline influences contribute to brand perception.

Editor's note: Manila Austin is vice president of research at Boston research firm Communispace. She can be reached at 617-316-4118 or at This article appeared in the May 20, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter. 


Basic psychology tells us that much of what drives behavior happens beyond - or below - our conscious awareness. And this is certainly true for shopping behavior, particularly as it occurs today against the humming backdrop of a digitally-enhanced and socially-energized landscape. Communispace recently participated in an Advertising Research Foundation (ARF)-commissioned research project exploring digital and social media in relation to the purchase process.

With so many inputs and options (online and off), people "shop" almost constantly - they browse, search online, talk to friends about brands and products, read advertisements - but they are not necessarily aware that they are, in fact, shopping. As market researchers, how can we explore material that, by definition, is beyond consumers' awareness?

Three phases of research 


The purpose of the ARF study was to understand how advances in digital and social media were shaping the way consumers shopped for and purchased three categories of consumer goods: groceries, electronics and automobiles1. The project involved three phases of research.  


Communispace and Firefly Millward Brown partnered on the upfront qualitative investigation; comScore built on the first-phase findings, designing and administering a survey to a sample representative of the U.S. Internet population; Converseon conducted social listening content analysis parallel to the quantitative work; and then Communispace conducted a final, third round of qualitative activities with online community members. Data were collected in the second half of 2011 and the full project team - the ARF, suppliers and sponsor companies (General Motors, Google, Kraft, Motorola and Young & Rubicam) - met several times throughout that fall and the winter of 2012 to make sense of what we were learning (visit for a detailed report).


Important revelations  


These collaboration sessions were critical for synthesizing our findings and generating implications. One of our most important revelations occurred relatively early on. We had completed the first round of qualitative work and had preliminary survey results in hand and were surprised to learn that, for all three categories, more than three-quarters of consumers ultimately purchased the brand they already had in mind before they started shopping. As we dug into the massive volume of quotes, images, video and audio clips, it became clear that most people had significantly narrowed their selection set before they began consciously researching their purchase. Consumers appeared to be passively shopping, unawares, before engaging in active research and rational decision-making.


This quote from one Communispace community member illustrates the challenge, as she notes that the first thing she does is research the brands she is considering:


"First, I check Kelley Blue Book values online for the cars I'm most interested in and to check on trade-in value for my car. Then I go to the dealer's Web site and check prices locally to decide which dealer to visit in person." - Justy E. 


But how did she get to her short list of automobile brands in which she was most interested? What influenced her thinking before she was, in her mind, shopping? Our challenge was to somehow elicit and explore a process of which consumers themselves were not wholly aware.


Beneath the surface


We knew that asking people directly about when they started shopping would only uncover what we already had heard, namely the rational process and decision steps that began after they had narrowed their selection set. We needed to get beneath the surface and frame provocative questions that would engage community members, helping them reflect and reveal aspects of their experience that were not strictly conscious.




We took a multimethod approach to generate the insights we were hoping to uncover. First, we used a mind-mapping tool to help community members broadly explore and discover facets of their daily lives that were related to shopping but that did not necessarily feel like shopping to them.  


Mind-mapping is a visual, free-association technique: Community members are given a single node - a starting point at the center of the map - and are asked to create branches from the node as they explore related themes, concepts or experiences.  


For our purposes, the central node we provided was the phrase "I notice" and we asked community members to illustrate anything they observed in their external environment about the three categories (cars, mobile devices and grocery items). It is important with this method to require a bare minimum of branches. Our standard threshold is 25, which forces respondents to stretch their thinking beyond what is top-of-mind. It makes the task more cognitively demanding but yields much richer results and because our facilitators develop trusting relationships with members of our private, online communities, we have the permission to ask people to push themselves in this way.


The mind map in Figure 1 shows how frequently and pervasively consumers notice products in their everyday environment, when they are not in active shopping mode. They notice cars in neighbors' driveways and when they are stuck in traffic and new grocery items are encountered when they visit friends and family as well as in-store.


Mobile ethnography


We also engaged community members in a mobile ethnography activity, which enabled them to capture and share their pre-shopping moments with us as they occurred. Members downloaded a smartphone app for this special project but we did not ask them to show us how they shopped. Rather, we asked them to document every time they saw or experienced something that might influence - positively or negatively - how they thought about grocery products, automobiles or mobile devices.  


Community members uploaded images, audio and video, which they could thematically categorize and which were automatically geo-tagged. What emerged were textured examples not of shopping behavior from the consumers' perspective but those pre-shopping instances that brought a new brand or product to their conscious awareness (Figure 2).



Role of proximity  


By deputizing online community members to be co-investigators of what influenced them, we could observe how sudden changes in consumers' circumstances opened the door for formerly-overlooked brands. We uncovered the simple but critical role of proximity. Among others, visiting brick and mortar shops, exposure to traditional advertisements and in-person interactions emerged as prevalent themes.


Finally, we wanted to better understand those moments where people actually did alter their perceptions about a brand, causing them to adjust their selection set prior to "shopping." To explore this, we designed a discussion that asked people to tell us a story about when they changed their minds - a time when they had one kind of car, grocery item or mobile device in mind but something happened that made them abandon or adopt a brand unexpectedly. We heard a range of stories and many featured a hands-on experience. As one community member described:


"For a long time I had always leaned on the Microsoft side of everything. I never liked Apple and refused to try out any of their products ... silly, I know. I never had real reasoning to be so against Apple; I just didn't think that there was any way that the products could possibly live up to all the hype. For a while, I had been in the market for a new phone. I knew I wanted a smartphone and was only looking at Android phones. When in the Verizon Wireless store, one of the employees started showing me the iPhone. I was immediately turned off, knowing that it was an iDevice. However, I listened and soon began to change my opinions of Apple. I decided to take the dive and try out the iPhone, knowing that I had 30 days to return it hassle-free. I've now had my iPhone for several months and I love it! I am so happy that I was open enough to try it out. I love Apple now and just recently got an iPad. I am hooked and feel ignorant for not having tried out the products sooner." - Chamonix M.


The importance of a test-drive is self-evident when it comes to automobile purchases but our discovery-oriented research revealed that consumers test-drive all kinds of products in their daily lives. They borrow friends' phones, experiment with new products in retail stores, try a new food at a family gathering and inadvertently test-drive cars - not just from dealerships when they're actively shopping but from rental agencies.


Winding and variable 


One of the clearest and broadest implications stemming from this research is that the path to purchase - long-assumed to be a linear progression or funnel - is evolving. Quantitative results showed there was no single, clear first- or last-used source in the shopping process. Rather than advancing through a straightforward, rational sequence, consumers' journeys were winding and variable. The shopping process today must satisfy consumers' emotional and informational needs; is non-linear and even cyclical; and, while certainly fueled by digital and social media, involves offline sources as much as online ones.


Brands, then, must be both pervasive and flexible to connect with consumers at any given point in their highly-individualized processes. This is perhaps more obviously true - or easier to figure out - when consumers know they are shopping (i.e., actively seeking information). But how can brands play a role in or facilitate the less-conscious, passive shopping process we observed?


Connect with people offline


It's still important to understand how to connect with people offline. Oftentimes, the advice, encouragement or inspiration shoppers are seeking comes to them unsolicited in the course of navigating their everyday lives. People's mental models of brands, products or even a market are shaped by these casual and unplanned encounters, many of which occur in their offline environment. It may be harder to observe or measure offline behavior but our research shows that brands need to be visible to consumers and communicating with them at every stage of the process, including the times consumers are not actively shopping.  


Our research also indicates that companies stand a better chance of connecting with consumers if they embrace their role as facilitators - helping consumers learn about brands, helping them navigate complex information and supporting ongoing conversations about brands or the category in general. It is critical that brands find both online and offline solutions for building these connections in an ongoing, prevalent, yet consumer-friendly way.


Far from dead 


Advertising is far from dead. One of the biggest surprises to us when we explored passive shopping with community members was the frequency with which advertisements were mentioned unaided. Particularly with the mind maps, television commercials, print ads, banner ads, embedded ads in online videos and product placements were repeatedly mentioned as things people noticed.  


Back in the day (circa 2006) when the term engagement in relation to advertising was newly coined, many insights professionals claimed that, to be effective, consumers needed to be more than exposed to advertising, they needed to be emotionally involved with a brand. This is certainly true but our research highlights just how large a role advertising plays in piquing our awareness - and how plentiful the opportunities are for this, both online and off.


Nothing compares


Test-driving in not just for automobiles. When it comes to changing consumers' brand perceptions, nothing compares to firsthand experience. Whether they are borrowing a phone or a car or trying a new dish at a restaurant, the often-accidental or un-looked-for exposure to a new brand or product was one of the most-frequently cited reasons that community members changed their minds.  


Brands need to consider, then, how to make firsthand experience easier to come by in the course of everyday life. Free samples, risk-free trial periods, rented goods and the like are all strategies brands can employ to provide consumers with fun and easy access.


No single source  


"Shopping" is a constant, ongoing and generally fun activity. Today's consumer lives life online and offline and no single source of information is more important on the whole. However, brands need to understand that the more digitally-connected consumers see some shopping behaviors as normal everyday social activity, rather than part of what they would define as shopping. For example, we pin favorite items on Pinterest (or post stuff we Like on Facebook) as a way to be social but these activities document and shape our own notions of a brand or product category and, even more importantly perhaps, shape how others think about or view a brand.  


To consumers, this social activity may not feel like shopping but it is continual context in which purchase decisions are being influenced. And it can be a lightning-quick step from pinning something that catches your eye to ordering it in your size.


Exist on multiple levels  


Shopping is just one example of how important consumer habits, perceptions and aspirations can exist on multiple levels: There are all the decisions and actions we intentionally make but there are underlying drivers and influences of which we are not always aware.  


Insights professionals need an array of investigatory techniques to adequately capture a holistic and accurate picture of the ever-evolving consumer - what lies above and what lurks beneath the surface of awareness. Luckily, we live at a time when consumers are open to engaging with brands as co-investigators and are willing to share and explore (given a baseline of trust and goodwill) private and potentially-undiscovered aspects of their lives.  


It is up to us as researchers, however, to ask fruitful, provocative and entertaining questions that will yield insight into the uncharted and internal landscape of consumers' experience.  



1 Powers, T., Advincula, D., Austin, M. S., Graiko, S. & Snyder, J. (2012). Digital and social media in the purchase decision process: A special report from the Advertising Research Foundation, Journal of Advertising Research,52(4), pp. 479 - 489.

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