Consumers have been “omni-channel” all along, of course. Word of mouth, reputation, circulars, seeing items used by influencers, shelf perusal – all of it, have built our mercurial paths to purchase for as long as people shopped. Marketers invent language to describe phenomena that may be new to their thinking and internal processes but are old hat to their customers. Digitization helps us see some of these behaviors in all their glorious chaos and detail so that it becomes all the more apparent how our old silos barely resemble the consumer behaviors they are supposed to serve.
Online shopping and ecommerce itself has been the real revolution in all of this. But it would be a mistake to regard certain trends as absolute and irreversible. The momentum behind online shopping has been so relentless for so long one might think that its obvious and inevitable end point is the extinction of bricks and mortar retail. In fact, you could argue that it is the very acceleration of ecommerce that is giving consumers some sense of pause as they themselves reevaluate how much the live shopping experience matters to them.
There is some evidence in GfK’s latest FutureBuy global survey that omni-channel activity is still quite fluid. The survey has been looking at shopper attitudes and reported behaviors since 2009 across 17 countries in 15 categories. In 2014, GfK found that while most product categories continue to see increased omni-channel habits (shoppers consulting live and online channels to make decisions) the most established ones actually saw slight declines. While 65% of shoppers for consumer electronics reported omni-channel behavior, that was actually down five point since last year. Apparel was down three points.
Now, to be sure, some purchase decisions like automotive and home improvement saw double digit increases in omni-channel shopping, some like mobile devices were up only slightly. And some areas like food or lawn and garden are still seeing well under a third of their shoppers consulting multiple online and offline sources of information. But the leveling of omni-channel behaviors in some of the categories that were impacted most and earliest by online shopping suggests that consumers find a kind of balance eventually and even may retreat from some trending behaviors. For instance, the study saw a notable retreat from showrooming this year. In 2012 only 22% of consumers were reporting that they used their phones in store to find better deals online. In 2013 that percentage shot up to 37% as people felt newly empowered by their smartphones. And yet this year only 28% in the US reported showrooming, which reflected a global decline as well.
Meanwhile, online seems to be more effectively driving people into the stores themselves as so-called Webrooming (researching on phone, buying in-store) is practiced by 41% of respondents. But the online channel to watch is mobile. of course. The share of overall online shopping activity occurring on the desktop declined from 78% last year to 64% this year. Online shopping via smartphones is now responsible for 15% of activity and tablets 10%, both up sharply.
That is not merely a migration from one screen to another. Mobility engages consumers differently and everywhere. It forces retailers to think about how their content works in different places and modes. A great deal of Webrooming may be occurring at home on phones, but much of it is also likely happening in the store itself and perhaps with the item in hand. On tablets, the shopping is most likely happening at home but probably during prime time and with the TV running. All of these considerations need to be added to the media mix and understanding how multiple channels amplify one another in a given moment.
It is important to note that when asked what influences their decision making about what and where to buy, consumers did not rate highly some of the very trendiest channels like online advertising, social media, retail and shopping apps or even online expert reviews. The dominant influences along the path to purchase are the user’s previous experience, the retailer and the brand. Specifics like on-shelf information, displays, couponing and word of mouth also figure as “vital” to the process.
Omni-channel is real, but its impact is highly variable according to retail category. Even more to the point, behaviors are still evolving and even elastic.