Our talented User Experience Director, Chris Jones, takes a look at why understanding your customer journey is crucial to success in modern retail. 

The retail world has become increasingly complex, but with that complexity has come opportunity. Things used to be fairly simple – retailers advertised products and services, customers visited stores. The point of purchase was in-store or perhaps over the phone or through the mail, but that was about it. The challenge was to get customers to the store, where it was then down to staff to do the convincing and make the sale.

Digital changed everything. Control over how, where and when to buy was put into customers’ hands and many retailers struggled to adapt quickly. Even now, many are finding it difficult to change fast enough to keep up and the pace of change is ever accelerating. How can you be sure that the decisions you’re making today over processes, systems and communications will still be relevant in a year or two’s time? What if you buy into something now that even by the time it’s implemented, has become outdated and made redundant by the next big thing in digital?

I know what you’re thinking. “You would say that, you work for a company that makes money helping retailers implement digital, it’s in your interest for things to be ephemeral, so you can keep charging for new tech”. I may be painting a slightly bleak picture here, but it’s to make an important point. Technology will always change and if the last 10 years has shown us anything,
it’s that the pace of change will only continue accelerating. The important thing then is to establish some fundamentals, park the technology for a moment and focus on your customers, their behaviour, needs, desires and how they shop. Technology changes, but by and large, people do not. Every time I write an article or speak at a conference, I try not to quote Steve Jobs, but here he is again saying exactly the right thing:

In our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to become all-consumed by technology and lose sight of our customers. A great sanity check when considering anything in digital is to ask yourself, “Why would our customers use this?” There’s often too much emphasis placed on how customers will use something, rather than why. Just because something can now be done online, doesn’t mean you should. Get inside your customer’s head and see whether it will actually improve their overall experience.

First steps towards a better customer journey

Starting with your customer experience means experiencing things as your customers do. I mean really experiencing, not sitting in your boardroom discussing what you think they’re experiencing. Mystery shopping is not a new idea, but can still provide invaluable insight over where your business is working and where it could be better. Get out there and experience what your service is like in the wild. Be uncompromisingly objective and if you can’t, get someone else to do it for you. The people providing a product or service are often the worst placed to judge it.

In these multichannel times, it’s essential to experience all sides of the business. Does your website inspire and educate customers when they’re window shopping? Does it run lightning fast on a tablet when they’re idly browsing on a Tuesday evening, tired from work, one eye on your products, the other on Coronation Street? As Mark Zuckerberg says in The Social Network, “You have part of my attention – you have the minimum amount”. Well guess what, so do retailers, so you’d better make it easy for me.

Do your stores offer something that the customer can’t get online? I’m not talking about a different range of products, I’m talking about an experience. What can you do face-to-face that you can’t do on your website? You can be human, you can adapt, you can converse. The death of the high street was announced prematurely, savvy retailers have realised that stores need to play to their strengths and return to good old-fashioned customer service. Help customers, inform them, entertain them even, encourage them to truly experience your products first-hand, not just via the zoom tool on your website.

Don’t neglect secondary or tertiary channels. Are your call centre staff as well trained as your in-store staff, able to truly advise customers on what to buy, or are they just there to take money and fend off complaints? Do you have ‘at home’ consultants who’ll take the shop to the customer? If you don’t, should you? We’ve seen this work very well, especially for retailers with complex, made-to-measure products. Leave nothing unchecked, look across all of your channels and encounter them exactly as a customer would. Remember that customers don’t see channels, they just see brand and service. If your website is fantastic, but your in-store experience is dire, it’s a sad fact that they’re more likely to remember the bad stuff and shop somewhere else next time, even if only making an online purchase.

Join up the journeys

Plenty of retailers are offering good channel experiences in isolation, but failing to join things up. You can create an amazing in-store experience and the slickest of slick websites, but still not be offering a service that’s as good as it could be for customers. The best retailers are ones who empower their customers to use any channel at any stage of the journey.

A typical customer journey for the retailers we work with goes like this:


Every journey is different of course and it varies depending on what kind of products you sell, but in the example shown, a customer begins by window shopping online, comparing retailers and products, getting an idea of what they like. They may then choose to visit a store to experience the product in the flesh, especially if it’s a high value item like a sofa where the fear of ordering something wrong is high and the desire to road test it (sit on it, in the case of a sofa) is also high. They may then choose to go home and think about it, ordering online a few days later. There’s then a post-purchase stage to consider where a retailer would focus on customer service, encouraging repeat business etc.

It’s the links between these stages in the journey that many retailers are missing and the acceptance that not all customers take the same journey. Customers decide what journey to take, not retailers. Your journey should be flexible enough to allow customers to research online and buy in-store, or vice versa. But more than that, you need to find ways to fill the gaps between the channels, make it easy for the customer whatever their journey and give them no reason whatsoever to shop elsewhere.

If a customer researches online and adds products to their wishlist or basket, can an in-store assistant access their account when the customer visits and show them those products first-hand? Could the customer even book an appointment to visit the store, whereby the assistant could have all of the products available for a personal consultation? Can the assistant then work with the customer to refine their wishlist/basket, upselling and cross-selling? And if the customer still doesn’t purchase in-store, can the assistant incentivise them to buy online later on? Running a customer journey project not only uncovers the steps of the journey, but also the links between those steps. It reveals simple issues that may not be anything to do with technology as such. For example, are assistants incentivised to encourage customers to buy online if they don’t spend in-store, or do they still view the website as a threat to their in-store sales?

Using technology to join up and reinforce that message is paying dividends for retailers, but it stems from first looking at the customer journey, accepting that not everyone who walks into a store is going to make a purchase and then using technology to ensure that the sale isn’t lost forever. Empower your customers to complete every stage of their journey in whichever channel they prefer and your business can only improve.

Summing up

In a saturated, quickly evolving market where everything is available faster and cheaper all the time, service and experience have become the differentiator. Understand your customer journey first and define your digital offering second.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to pick Chris' clever brain about your customer journey, then get in touch            01829 260 600. We'd love to hear from you.