Special Report: Shopper Behavior on Retailer Websites

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Peter Breen
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A shopper-centric look at retailer.com ... Proprietary research finds an array of tools influencing purchase behavior



The shopper commerce industry has been abuzz lately with discussions about retail media networks and their effectiveness at driving shopper engagement and product sales, especially relative to the other marketing and media options at the disposal of consumer brands. But amid all the talk about optimized reach, pinpoint targeting and closed-loop attribution, one important consideration seems to be getting less attention:

Exactly what are shoppers doing on retailer websites?

While much of the industry conversation has focused on the digital tools that retailers are using to drive traffic and influence purchase, few studies have sought to identify which of these tactics might actually be popular with the shoppers themselves. Answering that question was the goal the Path to Purchase Institute undertook in January by fielding a research study with 1,000 shoppers across the U.S. to learn why they visit retailer websites and, more importantly, what they do when they get there.

Some results are not at all surprising (search is important for most shopping trips, for one), although others might raise some eyebrows (video content doesn’t seem terribly influential here). But overall, the survey finds shoppers employing a variety of tools and services to help them make their purchase decisions online.

This article evaluates some key highlights from the survey. Members of the Institute have access to more comprehensive results, including a deep dive into retailer-specific activity for Amazon, Walmart, Target, Kroger, Home Depot, Best Buy and other leading chains.


  • 68% of shoppers visit a retailer’s website without prompting and with specific goals in mind.
  • 39% of shoppers visit the retailer’s website to begin a trip that concludes with purchases in the physical store.
  • Amazon.com accounted for more trips (22%) than any other retailer; another 16% of shoppers visited Amazon before shopping elsewhere.
  • 12% of shoppers are using the retailer’s website or app while in the physical store.
  • Of the 7% of shoppers whose trip was inspired by social media advertising, 73% saw the ad on Facebook.
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Trip Triggers

The sudden, massive shift experienced in mid-2020 appears to have subsided, but the migration to digital shopping continues: 8% of respondents to the survey said they conducted their first online shopping trip within the last seven days. Most, however, have already made it part of their standard routine, with 41% professing to shop online at least weekly (see Chart 2).

The vast majority of these shoppers are conducting their activity on retailer websites, either on a computer (49%) or via smartphones (25%). However, one-fourth said their most recent shopping was done through the retailer’s mobile app, an action that typically requires a greater degree of familiarity both with online shopping and that particular retailer. At the retailer level, Target shoppers were the most likely to have used the app rather than the website. 

It’s important to note that 27% of shoppers said they visited the retailer’s website to begin a trip that would conclude with purchases made in a brick-and-mortar store, with 39% identifying that as their typical behavior. So while omnichannel shopping habits are now prevalent, brick-and-mortar stores remain a critical part of the equation.

Otherwise, while most respondents (71%) said they conducted their entire trip in one visit to the retailer’s website, 27% said their final order included items that had been placed in their shopping cart on a previous visit. In addition, 18% of the shoppers who didn’t make a purchase during their latest trip did add something to their cart.

Also noteworthy is the fact that 92% of shoppers ultimately made a purchase during their most recent trip, which suggests a high level of purposeful activity that is also illustrated by the motivations shoppers gave for initiating the visit in the first place: 45% of shoppers went straight to the retailer’s site (or app) because they already “wanted something”; 68% said this is what typically inspires their visits.

Some advertising vehicles and other potential trip triggers are driving a fair amount of site traffic, despite the fact that no single factor sparked the most-recent trip for more than 9% of shoppers (see Chart 5). Over the course of one month’s worth of trips, however, 31% of shoppers claimed to be inspired by emails from the retailer and more than 20% from ads placed on social media (especially Facebook), search engines or other websites (also Chart 5). The impact of such off-site vehicles on trips will be an important consideration for potential advertisers as they evaluate the effectiveness of retail media buys versus other types of digital media.

Here’s another important point: 22% of shoppers conducted their most recent trip on Amazon.com, more than any other retailer (Walmart.com was second at 17%). But another 16% said they first browsed Amazon.com before going to another retailer’s website/app to do their shopping. So the critical need for brands to establish a strong presence on Amazon regardless of what they might be doing with other retailers is legitimate.

And one final point about omnichannel experiences: 12% of shoppers profess to be using the retailer’s website or app while they are in the physical store, underscoring the need for retailers and brands to effectively integrate their online and offline activity.

As for order fulfilment, 56% of shoppers opted for home delivery of their purchases during the latest experience, with the rest making a literal trip to pick it up in the store (24%) or at curbside (16%). This was one area in which results differed dramatically across retailers, with the totals largely reflecting the business models and capabilities of each – thus, 93% of Amazon shoppers opted for home delivery, while only 25% of Walgreens and 20% of Kroger shoppers did so. Conversely, Walgreens had the highest percentage of shoppers (53%) picking orders up in-store, and Kroger had the highest percentage (30%) using curbside pickup.

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Engagement Triggers

Once they get to the website or app, shoppers are taking advantage of a wide variety of trip-enhancing tools to help them find, and buy, the products they want. But few tools have been adopted thus far by a majority of shoppers. In fact, other than the ubiquitous search engine – which was utilized by 61% of shoppers – fewer than one-third utilized any tool during their most recent shopping experience (Chart 7). These relatively low usage numbers are likely related to a general lack of familiarity with online shopping, especially in the grocery channels.

Indeed, when asked, many shoppers claimed to be unaware of such common website features as product detail pages (46%) and digital circulars (64%). That would certainly suggest that retailers need to do a better job educating shoppers about the many offerings that are available – especially as they work to improve engagement through the key vehicles being built up for brand involvement.

More habitually speaking, shoppers are utilizing a number of tools to significant levels across retailers (Chart 8). Search, again, is the most common tool (at 97%). But a fair number of shoppers also are tapping into features and services that, collectively speaking, help accomplish three general functions:

1. Decide which products to buy: 54% and 36% of shoppers, respectively, are reading product ratings and reviews “most of the time.”

2. Plan the trip: 40% are looking at their purchase history and 39% are compiling a shopping list.

3. Find deals: 41% are consulting the digital circular and 38% are redeeming digital coupons during most of their trips.

The level of activity for these behaviors does vary significantly across retailers, however, in ways that generally reflect the specific go-to-market strategies and/or shopper profiles of each one. To wit:

• Search and product reviews are the most commonly used features for Amazon.com of course, but also for mass merchants Walmart and Target (as well as for The Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy).

• Digital circulars and coupons are the most popular features at price and promotion-focused supermarket retailers such as Kroger and Albertsons.

• Category-level pages are used more frequently at drugstore retailers Walgreens and CVS, where trips (more so than elsewhere) are often driven by a need for specific remedies.

Category pages and site menus are pretty common destinations in general, too, with 49% of shoppers saying they often use them. That result aligns with the fact that much of the search activity undertaken by shoppers is done at the category level (Chart 9).

Drilling down into several of the most important trip behaviors – in terms of both shopper activity and current retailer media opportunities:

Search: Paid search has already become a key aspect of the “retail media” buy – and with good reason given the results already discussed. The 61% of shoppers who used the search function during their last visit to a retailer website employed a mix of styles, with slightly more of them (52%) typing in the name of a product category than particular product details (44%) or a specific brand (40%).

That strongly suggests that an effective search-term buy for brand advertisers needs to cover all three of those options, especially given typical shopper behavior regarding search results: While 56% of shoppers say they scan results to find the one that best matches their search intent, 22% admit to normally clicking on the first result and 14% to usually picking from among the first few listings.

Product Detail Pages: Thanks to early efforts by Amazon, the product detail pages on many retailer websites contain vast amounts of information and a variety of other brand-building accoutrements aimed at providing shoppers with everything they might need to make a purchase decision. Retailers sometimes require product marketers to provide incremental funding to add these components to their pages. The painstaking effort being expended on PDPs would seem to be counterintuitive to their current level of use by shoppers, only 29% of whom utilized them during the most recent trip.

However, shoppers who did reference PDPs on their last trip did identify a number of content types and features as having an influence on their purchase decisions. By far the most influential “detail” is, of course, price, which had “a lot” of impact on 71% of shoppers and at least “a little” on all but 4%. Also not surprising is the effect of reviews and ratings and the product’s availability for either home delivery or in-store pickup (Chart 12).

Also noteworthy for marketers is the substantial influence that detailed packaging images and product features/benefits are having – at least among this segment of shoppers. But perhaps also worth considering is the relatively low interest in nutritional information and video content, given the general consensus in most industry circles (and, to be fair, other consumer research) of the impact that both elements can have on conversion.

Digital Advertising: Meanwhile, the oft-maligned digital ad seems to be doing fairly well as a purchase influencer: 11% of shoppers said they clicked on a digital ad for a product during their most recent trip, a figure that theoretically blows away standard industry click-through rates and might effectively imply that consumers in relevant situations – such as shopping on a retailer website – are far more likely to engage with advertising than the typical online consumer. What’s more, nearly half of those clickers (44%) say the ad had “a lot” of influence on their purchase decision, 67% say that ads influenced more than one purchase (Chart 11).

Attention to ads also varied substantially across retailers. For example, while 31% of Best Buy shoppers said they “often” click on the ads they encounter, only 17% of Amazon shoppers did.

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Other Purchase Triggers

In general, all of the retailer tools covered in the Institute’s survey have a significant effect on purchase decisions among the shoppers who use them. In fact, more than 40% of shoppers attributed “a lot” of influence for all 17 of the retailer website/app features that were evaluated (Chart 12). The audiences may be somewhat small in many cases, but the impact can be large.

In fact, some of the least-utilized features enjoyed some of the highest levels of influence, such as recipes and ideas for product usage. Both of those features, perhaps not coincidentally, were among the tools that shoppers were the least aware of. So their low usage levels at this point could be driven more by lack of visibility than by general disinterest.

Here, too, marketers need to be aware of differences across retailers. For example, Best Buy shoppers are more influenced than average by PDPs but less by category pages; Walgreens shoppers (as noted earlier) place more importance than average on category pages as well as the digital circular.

As retailers continue to refine their website operations to better engage both shoppers and brand advertisers (hopefully in mutually beneficial ways), there likely will be some significant shifts in priorities among the tools that are being delivered and emphasized. Engagement involving shopper purchase histories and the delivery of personalized offers, for instance, is expected to increase in strategic prominence even though shopper usage is relatively low at the moment.

And as both retailers and brands continue to invest in these kinds of tools, they’ll need to continue closely tracking shopper activity to ensure the effort is worth the cost. This is, after all, a shopper-centric industry.