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Is Path to Purchase the Road to Perdition?

A person forms beliefs about a product and about behavior related to that product. Those beliefs combine with social norms about the product and its related behaviors to form an attitude – a predisposition to like or dislike.

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By Dr. Stephen Needel

Many researchers and technology suppliers have become captivated by the process by which the shopper comes to select a product to purchase. This process goes by many names – the “path to purchase” and the “shopper journey” are common labels.  They all involve the basic formulation of awareness, consideration, preference, intention, purchase, and loyalty. As a picture is worth a thousand words, everyone who plays in this game has their own graphical depiction of what this path looks like. There are straight paths, crooked paths, funnels, circles; I’m waiting for more creative researchers to embrace other, more exotic geometric forms. I was happy to ignore all this until I came across a website that explained the path to purchase via Taylor Swift’s dating advice.

Having conceptual models is wonderful for marketers. It imposes a big-picture perspective on the daily minutiae of marketing that can’t help but be useful. Those that embrace this in their daily work may well think they are on that yellow brick road leading to the Land of Oz. My view as a researcher is different; assuming a “path to purchase” actually exists is more likely to lead the researcher down the highway to hell than to the merry old land of OZ. There are any number problems with a path to purchase concept from a research perspective, some of them solvable, some of them unsolvable, and some we can just ignore.

Is there anything like a shopper journey? The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. When we need toilet paper, my wife tells me, I go to Walmart, and I buy the product I’ve been using for as long as I can remember (hint – I don’t squeeze it). The only journey part is getting in my car. On the other hand, when we bought a new TV this past year, I talked with friends, I looked at the ads, I went to the store, I read reviews, and then made a purchase. Then, I couldn’t help myself – I completed the circle, writing an online review a month after buying. When it comes to CPG products, I’m not sure a shopper journey happens very often.

Even when we are considering a model that appropriately describes how shopping is done for that product domain, the question of whether we can estimate that model becomes relevant.  Statistically, there are tools such as structural equation modeling that would permit this. The reality, however, is that the availability of the data needed from any one person in order to estimate a model is unlikely to exist.

To date, our research approach has been silo-ed, where we worry about the individual links in a path to purchase model rather than the model as a whole. Advertising researchers worry about awareness, and how to increase the likelihood of going from awareness to consideration.  Packaging researchers worry about going from consideration to preference to intention – indeed, most packaging studies use purchase intention as their KPI.  Shopper marketers assume that the intention is there and worry about how to raise intention’s salience in order to make the product the shoppers’ choice. Little of this gets us to a model that is useful.

Accepting that we might only be able to understand a piece of the model at any one time does not release us from the need to validate our tools to the end of the process. A tool that reliably measures consumers’ emotional reactions to advertising, not matter how slickly, is useless if it can’t be shown that differences in emotional reaction are related to differences in purchasing. We often get in the intelligence test trap – intelligence is what intelligence tests measure. When we test pricing or packaging, we don’t really care if your purchase intent improves – purchase intent is what that 5-point scale measures and lately we’ve begun to think the same about NPS. We care about whether that price or that package generates more sales than another price or another package.

I’ve argued before, in this forum, that we need a model that describes purchase behavior and provides a theoretical framework for our brands. The model/theory should guide us in our primary purpose as researchers, which is to help our marketers change shoppers’ behavior. In the time-honored tradition of behavioral economics, I suggest stealing from old time social psychology.

Fishbein and Ajzen’s (1975) summary of 40 years of research on attitude formation and change has a very simple model. A person forms beliefs about a product and about behavior related to that product. Those beliefs combine with social norms about the product and its related behaviors to form an attitude – a predisposition to like or dislike. That belief combines with the shopping situation at the time for that person to form an intent, which leads to [purchasing] behavior.  This adaptation works for any type of product, for any type of shopping trip, and focuses on behavior as the outcome. When the proper measures have been taken, we can understand what needs to be adjusted to generate the behavior we want.

Don’t spend time going down the highway to hell – work smarter.

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9 responses to “Is Path to Purchase the Road to Perdition?

  1. Excellent article: As Sensory Experts we would like to add that consumers form beliefs about a product and about behavior related to that product not only via ‘social norms’ but also via a very emotional, intuitive idea about the idea of how this product’s smell/taste/touch what we call ‘imaginary’ sensorial design. This imaginary sensorial design CAN drive purchase but the sensorial perceptions WILL drive repurchase for sure!

  2. Thanks Steve, you make some good points here. IMO, the “Path” or “Journey” has real value, but it seems to have become a bit sensationalized. Marketers, shopper marketers and retailers all should want to know what works to improve conversion and what works against conversion. Sometimes, however, the objectives of path to purchase research can get subverted and this is where the trouble often starts. When engaged in Path to Purchase research, here are two key points to remember:

    1. Marketers sometimes believe that having a supremely detailed model is somehow empowering, rather than developing understanding of the best and most important points to influence shoppers, with an understanding of shoppers concerns at those points.

    2. To be actionable in the world of frequently purchased items, it is important to differentiate such learning from first time purchasers repeat purchasers.

  3. Interesting article, but the problem is multi-faceted. It depends heavily on whether the product is a simple consumer good, low consideration, low involvement. For high consideration, high involvement the path to purchase is very complex. And is potentially more complex given all the sources of information, both competitive, own and referrals/WOM.

    With this in mind we need to build an abstraction layer, which we have done but generally follows the purchase funnel and brand relevance.

    Lastly, I think the problem is that with all the data in the digital realm, marketers are looking for an easy, linear path to purchase. This is no longer possible. Instead we need to build an abstraction layer which is the purchase funnel and brand relevance. There is actually a bunch more complexity to it, but that would be a great start.

    Here are a few posts in this area: (

    Thanks for the post to stimulate the discussion.

  4. After seeing the results of implementing our customer maps on e-commerce sites with a lot of traffic the purchase journeys started acting like the blobs in a Lava Lamp. Slow and big to start with, but when warmed up, they move faster and have a tendency to break apart and accelerate. A beautiful sight for any marketer.

    I agree with Michael Twitty on developing actionable insights. The customer maps we develop can drive programmatic media activity and marketing automation tools via API.

  5. The customer journey is a mental model of the way customers behave. This can vary depending on sector – in most B2C and B2B markets now, customers will carefully consider, evaluate through a variety of means, purchase and then consider recommending to friends, reviewing online etc. Of course it doesn’t look like this for every single prospect/customer, but this a mental framework that allows us to understand the complexity. I have attempted to model a linear construct using structural equation modelling. It is certainly possible to introduce non-recursive relationships (feedback loops) to understand the strength of bonded customers within the McKinsey Customer Decision Journey.

    The ‘path to purchase’ is something else. This is about trying to capture the individual channels/touchponts customers take at each ‘station’ within the customer journey. Here you could have media stimulus/channels appearing and reappearing along the journey. capturing the contribution that each channels/touchpoint (digital and offline) makes would cleanly and accurately solve for the attribution dilemma.

  6. Actually, I think there are two sides to the path to purchase, especially for highly considered products. The first is the customer side, which for each individual (or business in B2B) will be different. It could have 1 stop or 100 stops along the journey.

    The other side is the journey at some level of abstraction. The level of abstraction may be at the tactical level, media channel level or strategic level, depending on the business question being asked. For example the purchase funnel is a high level, more strategic abstraction level.

    I will be writing a post on this in the next week or so.(

    This is a great discussion.

  7. Several foundational models for path to purchase, albeit a bit dated, include the McKinsey Quarterly article on The Consumer Decision Journey (David Court, 2009) and the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) model advocated by Jim Lecinski and others at Google. The Consumer Journey article cast aside the classic consideration funnel (awareness, familiarity, consideration, purchase, repurchase) in favor of a more iterative system. The ZMOT model highlights both online and online sources and, again, the dynamic nature of purchase consideration. So I guess the question here is: what’s the next useful evolution in thinking here?

  8. What perfect timing for your post! The distinction between Path to Purchase vs. Consumer Journey was raised at a recent QRCA meeting. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, DRA moderators concluded that the Path to Purchase is up to the point of purchase, while the Consumer Journey extends beyond the purchase to explore usage and repurchase. Maybe its semantics, but what’s important is making sure you and your client are on the same page to ensure you deliver on their team’s needs and expectations. We agree with Steve and have found studies which have yielded the greatest insights tended to be those which focused on higher-ticket products/services, involve greater emotional connections, and or have higher stakes (i.e., posing a greater risk if a poor decision is made).

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