Online customer behavior in 2018: Where consumers browse and purchase

According to new ClickZ research, when consumers know what they are looking for, 50% of ecommerce journeys start with a retailer website and 50% start with a search engine.

When consumers do not know what they are looking for, 62% of ecommerce purchase journeys start with a search engine and just 38% start with a retailer.

Much has been made of the need to understand customer journeys across channels. Whether your customers browse online and buy in-store, browse across various retail websites and purchase on Amazon, or go straight to one specific site to buy, online behavior is complex and varied.

A crucial piece of understanding the customer journey is understanding the start: Where do customers browse and purchase online?

Online customer behavior: A day in the life

I had a beloved pair of black Nike Free trainers for years — I ran in them, traveled in them, and trekked them all around town. When the fateful day came that the threads started to split, I knew exactly what I wanted: a brand new pair of the same exact shoes.

When I opened my laptop, though, my browsing journey was not so simple. I went first to Nike, to scope out the latest models and prices. I poured through several pages, read detailed product descriptions (since I do use them for running), and did side by side comparisons. To my surprise [and delight], I found a new color that I miraculously liked better than my go-to all-black. (For someone who owns majority black clothing, light grey is quite the walk on the wild side.)

About a half hour into my hunt, I’d settled on the exact model, color, and size that I wanted. Next step? I opened Google and entered in the product information, which led me to about half a dozen alternative retailers. Needless to say, Amazon was among them — but alas, they were not my final choice. I ended up going with Running Warehouse, which offered me the same exact product, still with free shipping, but $40 cheaper.

How representative is my online browsing and purchasing with the average US consumer?

In our recent report with Catalyst and Search Engine Watch, we surveyed more than 750 North America-based consumers between June and September of 2018. The report covered a lot of ground, but sought specifically to first answer the question of how customers browse and purchase online.

The results found that when a consumer knows what they are looking for, 50% of ecommerce journeys start with a retailer and 50% start with a search engine.

Amazon was the most popular of all retailers (20%), followed by Walmart (10%), and then a number of other major retailers including Best Buy, Target, and Macy’s.

In my case, I went directly to the retailer to help figure out what I wanted — though I did not start with Amazon.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in not excluding my browsing journeys to Amazon, contrary to widespread belief that Amazon is or will be the end all be all player in ecommerce. The research showed that while a huge 96% of consumers surveyed had visited Amazon within the last year, 78% also said they had visited the Walmart website to research or purchase.

Consumers move from site to site and chart their own paths to purchase

Another notable finding from the study was how much consumers move from retailer to retailer as they research their purchases. In my case, I ended up looking at about six unique retailer sites.

Today’s consumer, myself included, is research obsessed, taking time to scrutinize product descriptions, imagery, reviews, and pricing all before credit card details are entered.

The research found that 25% of consumers visited each of the five most popular search engines and retailers (Amazon, Google, Walmart, Target, and Best Buy) for research, consideration, and purchase. It’s interesting here to note the significance of Walmart, Target, and Best Buy (and other similar large retailers), because they too often get overshadowed by Google and Amazon. According to the survey, much of consumer behavior on those sites has to do with researching and comparing product details, availability, and price.

Younger consumers are more likely to use search engines

The survey found an interesting — though not necessarily unexpected — variation in consumer behavior by age.

Younger generations were more likely to go to a search engine when they know what they’re looking for (62%), while those aged 55+ tended to start this journey with a retailer or ecommerce website (65%).

On this point, it seems I fit my demographic quite nicely — once I knew the make and color I wanted, I clicked straight to Google.

For more on online customer behavior

Understanding how customers browse and purchase online is the first step of understanding your customer journeys. For these findings and many more (not to mention all the charts one could hope for), you can download the full research report for free here.

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