Delivering the Right Message to the Right Shopper at the Right Time

Retailer showing a customer a product
February 25 , 2022  |  By Emilijia Sarma, Daniel Villanova

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Have you ever seen a message from a brand about a product pop up in your inbox and thought, “Nice try, but that won’t work on me?” We all are constantly targeted with marketing messages from retailers through channels like in-store ads, mailing lists, and social media posts to name a few. But what about the marketing messages that make you stop and actually consider the offer? Crafting the right message for you at the right time  and delivering it to you in a way that makes sense is no easy feat. 

In the article “Retailer Marketing Communications in the Digital Age: Getting the Right Message to the Right Shopper at the Right Time,” published in the Journal of Retailing, researchers Daniel Villanova, Anand V. Bodapati, Nancy M. Puccinelli, Michael Tsiros, Ronald C. Goodstein, Tarun Kushwaha, Rajneesh Suri, Henry Ho, Renee Brandon, and Cheryl Hatfield explore what the current landscape of increased online shopping means for marketing communications. 

The rise of e-commerce has allowed retailers to develop a better understanding of the shopper decision journey, which can help inform retailers what marketing messages work best for certain shoppers at specific stages of their decision-making process. Retailers can benefit from examining their communications within the full scope of the shopper decision journey because it can make visible flaws in their communications that may otherwise “detract from the shopping experience.” This can help retailers “build stronger brands” by “leveraging their understanding of a stakeholder” for stronger and more effective marketing communication.  

The Shopper Decision Journey 

Villanova et al. use the Customer Journey Framework as a basis for the shopper decision journey, which they divide into three stages: “1) the consider and evaluate phase, 2) the buy phase, and 3) the loyalty phase.” Understanding the shopper’s frame of mind and needs in each of these stages can help retailers get the right message to them when it would be most effective. 

The shopper decision journey encompasses the complete experience of the shopper from discovering the brand and product to weighing it against its alternatives to making a purchase and engaging with the brand afterward. For marketing communications to be effective, retailers must consider a complex trifecta of the right time, delivery method, and the right message for the shopper.  

The right message depends on where the shopper is in terms of the shopper journey. As the shopper progresses through the various stages, they go through “distinct mindsets and information needs.” Therefore, the right message must be “appropriate to the temporal or decision stage” that the shopper is in. For example, if a shopper is still only familiarizing themselves with the retailer, a marketing message that’s trying to get the shopper to post about the brand on social media would not be appropriate at this stage. A more appropriate (or “right”) marketing message for this shopper would probably have to do with “persuasion of the value proposition” for the brand or product. 

The Consider and Evaluate Phase 

In the Consider and Evaluate Phase, the shopper acquires knowledge and forms preferences. The shopper could be browsing the chocolate section at the supermarket and scanning the aisle for a bar of dark chocolate, thinking about whether to go with a well-known brand that’s on sale or one in more luxurious packaging they’ve never heard of before. The shopper’s decision will be based, among other things, on price versus perceived value. The goal of marketing communications for shoppers in this phase should be “to improve the preferences or attitudes of the shopper for the retailer as a whole entity or for the specific products offered by the retailer.” 

Villanova et al. recommend that retailers consider using “alternate media formats” to push out messaging that varies in its complexity and richness. The timing and format of these messages are critical to whether and how a shopper will respond. The right message is first and foremost one that “answers a question the shopper has at that point in the shopper journey.” A shopper who’s getting to know a brand and its products might get overwhelmed with complex messaging aimed at a shopper who’s already been with the brand for years. 

The Buy Phase 

In the buy phase, the shopper narrows their consideration to one product that they will purchase. The marketing communications in this phase should “aim to direct shoppers toward specific alternatives or to ease the decision-making process to avoid choice deferral.” Particularly, point-of-sale communications can make or break the shopper’s purchase in this phase. If the messages are effective, they’ll clarify their purchase intentions; if they’re ineffective, they can complicate or stymy these intentions.  

The retailer must carefully consider pricing strategy for the given shopper and how price will be communicated. This includes strategically planning for price promotions. Whether a price promotion offer will be effective depends on several factors, such as who the shopper is and whether a price promotion is the appropriate choice to signal value.  

The retailer must consider if “a value signal is the right message” when combined with the other messages going out to the shopper. The price promotion should not conflict with other marketing messages being sent out about the product. For example, if the messaging is meant to signal the high quality of a product while at the same time offering a price reduction, this might confuse the shopper. 

One of the most important types of messaging retailers must consider is in-store communication. More immersive in-store experiences show great promise through the use of new technologies. However, with the increasing shift to e-commerce, retailers must “consider how they can take the benefits of their in-store collateral and re-generate them online.”  

The Loyalty Phase 

In the Loyalty Phase, marketing communications are meant to facilitate the “development of connections that serve as strategic advantages when the shopper embarks on the journey again.” Because it is so important to retailers to develop and retain existing shoppers, fostering shopper loyalty through creating “optimal shopper journeys” is paramount.  

Some of the most influential marketing communication comes from shoppers themselves. Retailers should focus on fostering shopper engagement and advocacy for the brand and its products online since a “stronger degree of engagement results in the shopper contributing to the information ecosystem, not just seeking and receiving information.” By engaging with the brand online through “liking or sharing someone else’s contribution,” the shopper can eventually progress toward “writing full blown posts themselves.” In this way, if their experience was positive, shoppers become advocates for the brand by sharing their thoughts with others. 

Fostering shopper loyalty is particularly important during turbulent times since “having a loyal and engaged shopper base offers some measure of resilience, or at least understanding” when issues like product scarcity or physical retail location closures are unavoidable.  

Using Modern Technologies to Target Shoppers 

Villanova et al. suggest that retailers make use of “nonlinear statistical and machine learning models” to identify the “right triad combinations of message, person and time.” Tools like “search clouds” can be employed to better understand the shopper and their questions about a brand and its products. A search cloud is an “insight tool” that organizes search engine data into “question categories such as what, where, and why.” Retailers can use this tool to see how they can “maximize their relevance” and deliver “the right message at the right time to the right shopper.” 

The shoppers’ online presence has increased opportunities for personalized communications that allow “for better fit with shopper preferences and greater convenience.” However, retailers should tread carefully when collecting shopper information online—if shoppers believe that their information has been collected “without their express consent,” this can negatively affect their perception of the retailer.

Finally, retailers should also take care to consider the relevancy of their marketing communications during times of crisis—a poorly crafted marketing message could send the wrong message and appear insensitive or opportunistic when tensions are high. The outbreak of Covid-19 has revealed just how important “having diverse communications channels” will be going forward. Villanova et al. underline that a large portion of shopper journeys are increasingly online-only or online-assisted, which impacts marketing communications that should factor in digital outlets.   

Emilija SarmaEmīlija Sarma is a Fulbright Scholar from Latvia and a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies (CLCS) at the University of Arkansas. Emīlija is the recipient of the CLCS Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and the Vance and Mary Celestia Parler Randolph Fellowship in English. Her research focuses on gender studies, intersectional feminism, pop culture, and young adult literature. Emīlija is passionate about international exchange in higher education and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. She has previously taught composition and technical writing for the English department at the U of A and worked for International Recruitment before transitioning to the role of Program Coordinator for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Orientation online. She currently works as the MFA program assistant at the U of A School of Art.