A recent essay, by Dr. Stephen Needel, in Greenbook, entitled “Is the Path to Purchase the Road to Perdition?” caught my attention. In it Dr. Needel dismisses the path to purchase concept as both unnecessary and problematic. I agree, the idea of a singular path to purchase is not useful, but his complete rejection of the concept misses a big opportunity for impact.
Dr. Needel begins by setting up an obvious contrast: purchasing toilet paper versus purchasing a television. In the case of toilet paper, there is little cognitive effort, therefore no considered choice, therefore no path to purchase. The purchase of a television does require a path to purchase, because he actively and consciously seeks out information to help make his choice. Since his argument hinges on the apparently low involvement case of toilet paper, let’s give that some thought.
Many would agree with Dr. Needel that we often purchase out of habit. From the moment his wife asked him to get toilet paper to the time he pulled it from the shelf, he gave no thought to any other brand, other than what he has always purchased. At some point in the past however, Dr. Needel went on a “journey” to select his most preferred toilet paper; after which, he gave the question little further scrutiny. More to the point, on his way to his current purchase, he may have experienced an ad on the radio, recalled a conversation with friends or encountered an end-cap with a display of a new SKU of his favorite brand. Dr. Needel did have a path to purchase, but because he had better things to do with his cognitive resources, he ignored or did not notice these opportunities to take the path less traveled and reroute his journey toward a different choice.
For many product categories consumers will not investigate and contrast various options to select what best suits them; such effort would seem absurd and inefficient. However, there are shoppers who will take on a more cognitively taxing journey. So while the journey to purchase toilet paper is focused and short for some, for other shoppers it may be broader and longer. This is where things actually get interesting, and where improved models of human behavior and cognition can help marketers punch through habit and potentially hijack the consumer along her well-worn path. This is where a more nuanced conceptualization of path to purchase really becomes paths to purchase.
There is complexity here, but that complexity is within our grasp. Contrary to Dr. Needel’s contention, we can, with the right questions and analytic tools, profile a category in terms of its predominant paths to purchase. We can identify and profile each of the most prevalent purchase journeys that characterize a product category. And, armed with that knowledge, we can then determine at which points it would be most effective to intervene with our message.