Consumers are increasingly using the digital path to purchase when they buy things. To be honest, the so-called digital path is really more of a digital touchstone than a path. Even when they don’t purchase items online, consumers use their mobile devices for research and comparison. Consumers now expect to be connected all the time and everywhere they go. This all-the-time/everywhere mindset has been fostered by the rise of mobile technologies (especially the smartphone) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Anne-Lindsay Beall (@annelindsayb), the Senior Editor of External Communications for SAS, observes, “Consumers are connected, devices are connected. It’s the Internet of Things (IoT), and it’s going to have a massive impact on our lives. It’s already having an impact in retail, with more to come as retailers adopt new technology and uses.” Consumers don’t really care what network they use to connect; they just want to be connected. And it’s in retailers’ best interests to help them stay connected. Beall reports that her colleague Lori Schafer, SAS’ Executive Adviser for Retail and CPG, told participants at the SAS® Global Forum, “The IoT does three things for retailers. It helps you sense who the customers are and what they’re doing. It helps you better understand customer behavior and buying practices, and it allows you to then act upon those insights to create a better overall experience for the customer.” Beall adds, “While that creates a better customer experience, IoT applications have to translate to bottom-line profitability.”
Getting to Know Your Customer
Deren Baker (@deren_baker), CEO of Jumpshot, insists, “Marketers need to shift from a channel-centric focus to a true customer-centric view.” By that he means retailers need to know the complete digital path to purchase used by consumers. How can retailers do that? Baker suggests, “Through audience analytics.” He explains:
“Though traditional customer journey mapping connects the dots within companies’ properties — websites, mobile, or in-store — audience analytics can show where customers came from, what they did on a given site, and where they went and what they did afterward. Mapping only what a customer does on your brand’s website isn’t enough. To truly understand your customers, you need to know what they do when they’re not on your site. By studying clickstream information, you gain insight into consumers’ full browsing activity, including off-site brand interactions.”
Researchers from Forrester insist companies need to transform in order to take advantage of the increasing importance of the digital path to purchase. They suggest “a four-part blueprint on how to do it.” The four imperatives to establish a new competitive advantage are: 1) Transform the customer experience with a systematic, measurable approach; 2) accelerate your digital business future for greater agility and customer value; 3) embrace the mobile mind shift to serve customers in their moments of need; 4) turn big data into business insights to continuously improve your efforts.
Forrester’s four imperatives rely assume companies have access to the right data and have the means to analyze that data for actionable insights. A cognitive computing platform is an important part of the picture because it can gather and analyze both structured and unstructured data (an essential capability in the digital age) and can use that analysis to make decisions and/or provide actionable insights. Forrester’s four imperative also make clear that other crucial capabilities include IoT connectivity and a good mobile strategy. Paul Miller (@PaulMiller), a senior analyst at Forrester writes, “Forrester talks about the four market imperatives driving successful businesses in the Age of the Customer. IoT should touch — and facilitate — all of them.” Baker adds, “The massive disconnect between businesses’ perceptions of customer activity and actual consumer behavior cannot be overlooked. Marketers must grasp their customers’ journeys to truly understand their audiences. To connect the dots in your customers’ journeys, go beyond the limited view of what happens on your site — and use your collected data to its full potential.”
How Mobile and IoT Drive the Digital Path to Purchase
Connectivity is the sine qua non of the digital path to purchase. Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer) and Rob Puentes (@rpuentes), bluntly state, “No industry or household in the world, will reach their future potential without access to broadband, it is the electricity of the 21st century.” As digital commerce grows, so does the importance of connectivity across channels for retailers. Mobile is quickly becoming the most important channel for retailers to master. Jason Ankeny (@jankenydive) reports, “Smartphones now account for a quarter of online retail sales in the U.S., a year-over-year increase of 41%. But the mobile shopping experience remains far from optimal — and users are impatient.” Dan O’Shea (@Doshea14) reports, “Digital commerce overall grew 19% year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2016, with mobile accounting for 52% of all shopping traffic and 30% of all orders, according to figures from the latest Salesforce Shopping Index, which measures the activities of 500 million shoppers globally.”
“Smartphones are omnipresent in consumers’ lives,” writes Ankeny. “You can’t quite say the same about desktop devices or even tablets, whose share of total e-commerce transactions completed on mobile devices plunged 18% year over year. Like the sports cliché says, the best ability is availability.” Google analysts insist that the most important situation for retailers to be available is in the “micro moment” when consumers decide to make the purchasing decision. They explain, “When people shop, their smartphone is now their go-to advisor and assistant. For retailers, this means big opportunities to be there and be useful in shoppers’ micro-moments.” O’Shea concludes, “If retailers want to keep stoking digital commerce growth, they can rely to some extent on consumer willingness to increasingly leverage mobile while shopping, but they also need to continue refining the tools that help those consumers find the products they want. Allowing them to search by voice, with images or with the help of an intelligent machine should keep the digital commerce arrow pointing upward no matter what device consumers use to shop online.”
All evidence points to the fact that the digital path to purchase is going characterize customer journeys in the years ahead. Ankeny reports that retailers are beginning to acknowledge this reality. He writes, “Retailers are committed to improving and enriching the mobile experience. More than half of retailers say mobile initiatives are among their top three priorities in 2017, according to a recent report from the National Retail Federation’s Shop.org division and research firm Forrester. The rest need to get their priorities in order. Their reputation depends on it. Their bottom line, too.”
 Anne-Lindsay Beall, “Connected Consumers, IoT and What Retailers Need to Do Now,” Longitudes, 19 March 2017.
 Deren Baker, “Four Ways to Gain a Holistic View of the Customer Journey,” MarketingProfs, 29 September 2016.
 Kyle McNabb and Josh Bernoff with Cliff Condon, Carlton A. Doty, Sharyn Leaver, Moira Dorsey, Carrie Johnson, Laura Koetzle, and Elizabeth Ryckewaert, “The eBusiness Professional’s Blueprint For Strategy In The Age Of The Customer,” Forrester, 12 September 2014.
 Paul Miller, “Internet of Things Data Driving New Customer Relationships,” Information Management, 21 January 2016.
 Adie Tomer and Rob Puentes, “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.
 Jason Ankeny, “Why retailers need to rethink what they think about mobile,” Retail Dive, 28 March 2017.
 Dan O’Shea, “Report: Digital commerce surges on mobile growth,” Retail Dive, 20 March 2017.
 Staff, “How Mobile Has Redefined the Consumer Decision Journey for Shoppers,” Think with Google, July 2016.