‘Shopper Journey’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

A couple weeks ago I was on a briefing call with a vendor who started talking about customer or shopper journeys in a way I’d never heard before. They were talking about journey design and how to incent consumers to take desired next steps in the “journey process”.

That conversation gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, because I realized that one, a lot of people are now using the term “shopper journey” but clearly we don’t all mean the same thing. And two, while I should know better than to be surprised by this revelation, it doesn’t stop me from worrying about the direction that one of these definitions is taking.

In RSR’s early days, we had a slide that we used a lot. It had a quote – I’ll take credit for that quote: “It’s not about how you want to sell. It’s about how consumers want to buy.”

When I hear people talking about “designing” their customer journeys, that strikes me as antithetical to the idea of “it’s all about how consumers want to buy.” Designing means you are creating a path and doing everything you can to get consumers to follow that path. In other words, forcing consumers down your ideal path, rather thansupporting consumers as they make their own path.

Shopper journeys should be about discovery, not design. You should be learning about how your customers shop, not deciding what is the best way for them to shop and then forcing them to conform.

That’s not to say that you should be completely hands-off of the customer journey. Far from it! But there’s a huge difference between supporting something and forcing something. And let’s be realistic: many shopper journeys are going to be pretty simple and straight-forward, like the one where the consumer makes a grocery list and goes to her favorite grocery store to buy it. In understanding that journey, retailers can go far in taking opportunities to influence it.

But retailers – and the agencies and consultancies that are jumping on board this whole idea of journey design – need to remember what got us to shopper journeys in the first place. As more channels and touchpoints proliferate, consumers have many more choices for how they can choose to engage with a retailer.

Yes, the downside to that is that retailers are facing what is ultimately a more expensive selling process, because every touchpoint you add adds more cost to the retailer’s operations, and so far there haven’t been a ton of examples of retailers achieving more low-cost engagements and using that to save money on high-cost engagements, like those that happen in stores. The cost to serve keeps getting higher and higher.

But retail has no captive audience. No brand, no store has so much hold over a consumer that they would feel like they have no other choice but to stay with you. It’s just too easy to switch to someone else if a retailer makes it hard for a consumer to engage with them in the way they want to engage.

In that sense, journey design is very dangerous. I would even hazard to say, extremely dangerous. It implies that the retailer is in control. And I thought we already figured out that you’re not – the consumer is. So quit trying to force them into the behaviors you want to see, and instead focus on how to help them achieve whatever it is they’re trying to achieve.

It’s only once retailers internalize exactly how much “helping them” is different from “selling stuff” – that “selling stuff” is an outcome, not a strategy, that we will see real changes driven by omni-channel.