At your convenience

Ease and speed of purchase are driving online shopping at the expense of traditional channels, but the process is sidelining brands, which are being bypassed by consumers intent on a quick click

Last week online shopping hit the headlines as research from Verdict showed that its popularity is biting into high street sales.

Certainly online has now eclipsed the high street, directories and print advertising as the first port of call when searching for financial services and travel products, with over 50% of consumers preferring to use the internet. But now brands from a range of sectors are rethinking not just their digital presence, but how they best integrate marketing spend across all channels to drive awareness and engage consumers when they are predisposed to buy.

The second bi-annual E-commerce Media Monitoring Analysis (EMMA) of 1,200 shoppers, commissioned by digital direct media specialists Equi=Media, reveals how consumers research markets, obtain quotes and buy products both on- and offline – essential knowledge for brand marketers in this day and age. With just about everything available at the touch of a button, consumers are increasingly driven by ease, convenience and speed over price or quality considerations.

For some years, doomsayers have predicted the steady demise of the high street, but the rate at which consumers are moving online to buy products is surprising.

Over the past six months there has been a 30% decrease in preference for the high street as the channel most likely to be used to search for products and services. The high street is also notably the only channel to show an overall decrease in consumer preference at each stage of the “search, quote and buy” process. Over 60% of consumers prioritise ease, speed and convenience as the core rationale when choosing a channel through which to search for products and services and open a dialogue with brands.

Clearly, the high street is struggling to convince consumers it embodies these customer-service- oriented qualities. However, the exception to this rule is the travel sector, which paradoxically, despite being a pioneer of online procurement, still achieves strong consumer preference for its high street agents at each stage, with nearly 30% of consumers actively searching, 35% obtaining quotes, and nearly 40% purchasing in their outlets.

Over the past six months the key youth and high-income consumer sectors have both shown a significant increase in their preference for searching for travel products and financial services online with 54% and 52% growth, respectively.

Perhaps the most telling trend revealed by EMMA is that consumers are browsing products and services and engaging with brands online more indiscriminately than ever before. Brands, it seems, are losing the battle for hearts and minds and now need to work a lot harder and smarter to understand how to build awareness, and then engage and convert consumers.

When it comes to searching for products online, there has been a 5% increase in the number of consumers who can’t remember which site or brands they browsed and an 8% decline in those heading online and then going straight to a specific site. Of even more concern for brands is the fact that nearly 30% of consumers do not even remember which providers they received quotes from, an increase of 11%, and a further 16% prefer looking for services from unspecific providers.

This strongly suggests that in the online environment, other factors beyond the traditional drivers such as brand or quality of product affect consumers’ predisposition to purchase. When it comes to preference for a channel when searching, over 7% more consumers than before are seeking ease, speed and convenience combined as key factors over availability, choice and price. When getting a quote, preference for seeking the cheapest or best deal is down 11%, while seeking the greatest convenience, ease and speed is up 17%, compared to last year.

The traditional channels such as the high street and the telephone, which necessitate direct human contact at the critical quote-and-purchase phases, are still the most preferred – but this has decreased over the past six months by 8%.

The preferred individual channel for buying financial services and travel products remains the phone, with an overall increase across all sectors of 5%. But we can see the importance of ease and speed is increasing in the purchase mentality at the cost of factors such as the personal touch and added security.

This increasingly indiscriminate approach when going online (including search engines, non-specific searches and affiliate sites) to search and seek quotes indicates an ongoing dilution in the ability of brands to achieve cut-through and drive direct response. Behind the success of non-specific search techniques also lies the trend for people to search on product or categories, rather than looking for brand names.

But so far, this growing trend in consumer behaviour online has led to greater product and category awareness – not necessarily brand awareness – allowing the creation of a significant industry of introducers to “hijack” the general search terms and steer consumers away from more widely known brands.

Brands must embrace the changing behaviour of consumers online, improve their techniques to raise brand awareness on the medium and ensure the provision of channels that deliver adequate service levels, or face being beaten by smaller, faster competitors with inferior and even more expensive product offerings.

Andrew Burgess, managing director of Equi=Media, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight