Mapping the Retail Customer Journey: How to Get Started

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The modern retail customer journey is sprawling, often spanning multiple channels and dozens of touchpoints or more. Each of these touchpoints represents an interaction between a consumer and a brand that has the potential to either convert a shopper into a buyer — or to drive them into the arms of a competitor. To avoid this second outcome, brands must make every effort to optimize each touchpoint, which first requires developing a holistic view of their companies’ customer journeys through journey mapping.

What Is Customer Journey Mapping?

A customer journey map is exactly what it sounds like: A visual representation of the various touchpoints an individual interacts with along their journey from prospect to the customer (and, in many cases, to advocate). Customer journey maps serve a valuable purpose, helping retailers better understand how their customers think, what their needs are, how and where they shop, and more — all with the goal of delivering more targeted brand messaging and consistent omnichannel service to nurture customers down the path.

Customer journey mapping — sometimes known as user journey mapping — requires brands to identify with their target audience and try to see things from their perspective. In doing so, retailers can develop a firsthand appreciation of the kinds of pain points their customers typically experience and proactively address those issues.

Mapping the retail customer journey also enables brands to identify and eliminate any gaps within their existing services and communications to ensure that customers are fully supported at every stage of the journey.

Why Customer Journey Mapping Matters

Although the retail customer journey might seem simple when taken at face value — a customer needs a product, finds one to their liking, and makes a purchase — it’s actually surprisingly complex.

No two customers are alike; each one comes with their own unique set of wants, needs, challenges, and expectations. To convince a prospective buyer to make a purchase — let alone become a loyal customer — a retailer must accommodate all of these elements and provide a highly personalized, end-to-end experience.

This is a tall order for any brand but mapping the customer journey can make things more manageable by providing retailers with a comprehensive view of all possible touchpoints and helping them understand the cause and effect of customer interactions.

But that’s not all — other benefits to mapping the retail customer journey include:

  • Deeper Insight: By placing themselves in the customer’s shoes, retailers gain valuable insight into how their customers think, feel, and act to better empathize with their overall experience. Brands can then channel this newfound perspective into designing customer journeys that meet actual consumer needs.
  • Proactive Issue Resolution: Another benefit to seeing things from the customer perspective is that brands can recognize problems and pain points within the buyer journey that they may have otherwise overlooked. With a fresh set of eyes, retailers can tackle these issues head on — and even proactively address future roadblocks — thereby minimizing customer frustration and allowing for a seamless experience. 
  • Comprehensive Coverage: From in-store to online, the customer journey spans a wide variety of channels and individual touchpoints, with new ones emerging every day. Without a clear sense of all the potential ways customers might interact with their brand, retailers risk letting prospective buyers fall through the cracks. Customer journey mapping provides a comprehensive view of the entire user journey across all touchpoints, enabling retailers to see all eventualities and ensure they have total coverage, no matter where their customers shop.
  • Personalized Experiences: Mapping the retail customer journey can offer insight into how and where a brand’s customers prefer to shop. Armed with this information, retailers can interact with customers through their preferred channels and leverage data analysis — made possible through the use of a customer data platform — to deliver personalized communications and targeted offers.
  • Optimized Brand Messaging: With greater visibility into how customers interact with their brand, a retailer can develop a more accurate understanding of what messaging and which campaigns are most impactful, and at what stage in the journey to deploy them. And by plotting the entire retail customer journey from start to finish, brands can recognize potential gaps in coverage and fill them in as needed.
  • Cross-functional Stakeholder Alignment: From a business perspective, customer journey mapping is a powerful tool for driving stakeholder alignment because it clarifies business needs and priorities, provides valuable context for business decisions, and helps teams across the organization understand their role in supporting the customer journey.
  • Connected Journeys: The ideal retail customer journey should be, above all else, totally seamless and consistent. Shoppers should receive the same level of personalization and high-quality service regardless of where they are in their journey or which touchpoint they’re interacting with. In order to deliver this kind of cohesive experience, retailers need to be able to see all of the possible paths a buyer can take and the ways in which these paths flow together and diverge.

Key Stages of the Retail Customer Journey

Although no two customer journeys are identical, they tend to follow the same basic structure:

  1. Awareness: During this initial stage, the customer becomes aware of a need they have or an issue they face, for which they’re eager to find a solution. Since the Awareness stage is often the first step of the customer journey, it tends to be heavily research-based — customers might talk to friends or family members to see if they have any recommendations or go online to get a sense of what options are available to them. From a brand perspective, the Awareness stage is their opportunity to engage with the customer and make them aware of the company’s products.
  2. Consideration: A customer in the Consideration stage has completed their initial research, identified a few viable options, and is now evaluating those options against each other to see which best meets their needs. At this point, a brand has the customer’s full attention but needs to help them see the value their product can deliver. High-touch service is critical at this stage and could spell the difference between a customer choosing one company’s product over another.
  3. Purchase: Having weighed their options, the customer is ready to make a purchase. Although the customer has made their decision, the retailer isn’t entirely off the hook — it’s important that the purchasing process be as easy and convenient as possible to avoid scaring the customer off at the last minute.
  4. Retention: The customer has made an initial purchase with a brand — now it’s time to ensure that they keep coming back for more. Although loyalty rewards programs are a valuable touchpoint for the Retention stage, they’re only the beginning. Retailers should also solicit (and actually listen to) feedback and routinely reengage customers through personalized, high-value offers and messaging to maintain strong connections and build a long-lasting customer relationships.
  5. Advocacy: The final, and perhaps most important, stage of the retail customer journey is the Advocacy stage. By this point, a retailer has earned itself not just a loyal customer, but one who’s willing to sing the praises of its brand to anyone who will listen. Key touchpoints in the Advocacy stage include online customer communities where loyal shoppers can interact with other brand advocates, referral programs, and special in-person events where customers can engage directly with the brand.

It’s important to note that each of these stages includes many individual touchpoints that span multiple channels. Customer journey mapping offers the perfect opportunity to capture an end-to-end view of all of these touchpoints and optimize them in order to make the buyer’s journey as seamless as possible.  

Visualizing the Retail Customer Journey

Your customers are looking for shopping experiences that are seamless, personal, and joyful — data is the way to deliver them.

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How to Create a Retail Customer Journey Map

At a high level, the process of creating a customer journey map should look something like this:

  1. Establish the “why.” Although journey mapping is an essential process for any brand, it’s important to establish a clear reason for creating a journey map as well as to define goals and objectives at the outset. This not only imbues the journey mapping process with purpose, it also sets parameters and creates success metrics for continuous improvement.

  2. List out all touchpoints. Each touchpoint represents a single interaction between a customer and a brand, during which a customer has the chance to form an opinion of that brand. Touchpoints can take many forms, from an in-person conversation with a sales associate, to reading a third-party review site, to a conversation with a chatbot.

    Listing out all touchpoints can be a significant undertaking — a single company can have hundreds of touchpoints, if not more. It’s an essential step of the journey mapping process because it provides valuable insight into which touchpoints customers engage with and how often, which can offer insight into how they think and feel.
  3. Create buyer personas. A buyer persona is a fictionalized customer intended to represent a specific segment of a company’s target audience and to help contextualize how consumers within that segment might approach purchasing decisions.

    In order to ensure accuracy, buyer personas should be based on actual customer data, as well as feedback shared by existing customers. Each persona has its own unique set of needs, goals, and pain points and therefore its own distinct journey. Brands will want to narrow their focus and determine which personas are high priority when they first begin journey mapping.
  4. Create a customer journey map. Or, as the case may be, multiple maps serve different buyer personas.
  5. Visualize the journey. Once a retailer has mapped the journey, they need to undergo it themselves. This step is vital, as it provides brands with a firsthand perspective on which touchpoints require additional support. Data analytics can serve as a valuable second set of eyes, so to speak, at this stage because it can provide additional context about areas in need of improvement and insight into what changes need to be made.
  6. Revisit the journey regularly. Customer journeys are constantly evolving, so it’s in brands’ best interest to go through this exercise on a routine basis. This is where many companies fall short: Although 75% of customer experience leaders report to using customer journey maps, only 56% treat theirs as a living document and keep them up-to-date. Failing to update customer journey maps according to changes in the marketplace and the emergence of new trends and channels increases the risk of buyers falling through the cracks and retailers losing out on business. Failing to update customer journey maps also means brands risk missing out on the opportunity to capitalize on new technologies, such as conversational artificial intelligence and intelligence derived from machine learning.

Beyond this general process, here are a few things retailers can do to ensure that their customer journey mapping experience is successful:

  • Talk to customers. Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes is a great start, but it’ll never be as valuable as going straight to the source. From surveys to user groups to reviews, there is a number of ways to solicit feedback from buyers and get their firsthand perspective on what the journey should look like.
  • Know that the journey isn’t linear. Although it would be ideal if all customers moved straight through the Awareness to Advocacy pipeline, many shoppers go through the first few stages only to backtrack. Understanding this is key because it enables brands to either build out new touchpoints or optimize existing touchpoints to get those prospective buyers back on track.
  • Understand the difference between journey mapping and experience mapping. Though closely related, customer journey and experience maps differ widely in scope. Customer journey maps typically focus on a single product or service and are a powerful tool for customer retention. Customer experience maps are much broader and span all of a company’s offerings and is often used to refine a brand’s marketing strategy.
  • Consider actions, emotions, and motivations. Many retailers only take customers’ actions into account when journey mapping. Going a step beyond to understand how customers feel at each stage of the journey and their underlying motivations paints a much more detailed picture and enables brands to mitigate any negative emotions consumers might experience as they shop.
  • Keep pain points in mind. One of the primary motivations behind customer journey mapping is to eliminate any obstacles that might prevent shoppers from making a purchase. With that in mind, it’s important that retailers both talk to consumers directly about what challenges they typically experience and leverage data analysis to identify — and solve — those pain points.
  • Streamline the journey. That means eliminating any unnecessary interactions that would slow the customer down or potentially cause frustration. Customers’ time is precious, and many do not want to jump through additional hoops to get the information they need, so it’s best to keep things simple.

Much like the journeys they represent, no two retailers’ customer journey maps will be exactly the same. The processes and best practices presented here should give brands a good head start, but it’s important to tailor each according to your company’s needs.

Develop Seamless Customer Journeys Through Data

In order to succeed in today’s cutthroat competitive retail landscape, brands must deliver seamless, customer-centric journeys and experiences — and data is the key to accomplishing that. To learn more, check out Hitachi Solutions’ very own customer journey infographic or contact us to speak directly to a solutions specialist.