As technology and social trends change, so does the customer journey. So where are we today? How does it impact the marketing mix? To get some insights, we can look to the Reimagining Retail podcast “What Today’s Customer Journey Looks Like” (March 1, 2023), which took a look at the topic. Aligned with the USPS’s most recent “Generational Report,” we can gain some particularly interesting insights.

So Much Has Changed

In the podcast, retail analysts Suzy Davidkhanian, vice president, content and e-commerce practice and analysis, and Sky Canaves, senior analyst, retail and e-commerce, both for Insider Intelligence, note that the basic concept behind the customer journey has remained the same for decades: identification of a need/want, research, evaluation, decision to purchase, and ultimately, the move to retention/advocacy.

The trick is developing content for each of the touchpoints along the way. As we know, the number of touchpoints has exploded, and with most buyers having increasingly short attention spans (unless they are researching a very high-value product such as a car or other major investment), they are flitting from one channel to another. Consequently, the amount of time to which they are exposed to the message is getting shorter, too.

Some of this, as noted by Davidkhanian, is the result of the move away from the retail store in recent years. “The touch points are different now that everything is much more digital,” she says. “There are many more experiences that are not personal. People are doing things from farther away [rather than in a store where there is personal attention].”

This reference to the online discovery process as not being personal is an interesting one. Consumers love the convenience of online, but if there was one thing we, as a society, discovered during the pandemic, is how important human connection really is.

Stores Are Relevant Again

Both Davidkhanian and Canaves notes that, ironically, the explosion of “everything digital” and the closure of many retail stores, while real, is actually having a boomerang effect that is driving a rebirth of retail stores. It is just not in the traditional stodgy way that we remember them.

This was recently affirmed by Jeff Boardman, co-founder at Clown Skateboards. Writing on his LinkedIn page, Boardman put it this way: “It’s important to consider why anyone would go all the way to a store when it is much easier to sit at home, browse and select items with no time limitations, and receive them directly to your door. When put like this, it is hard to believe that anyone would still shop in physical stores.”

However, far from dying a slow, lingering death, Boardman describes how physical retail is being “re-born” to offer new experiences for shopping through entertainment, technology and appeal to “core consumer passions.”

This, Boardman says, is giving birth to a “new retail experience” that is not just flashy for the sake of being flashy, but one that incorporates a wide range of technologies at all levels to be “the right technology at the right time” so that these experiences are relevant and properly woven into the customer journey. The goal is to create a genuine emotional connection with the shopper, and ultimately, to the brand. “It is just as simple as the difference between talking to someone over the phone versus in real life,” he says. “When we speak to someone in person, there are so many senses involved that we don’t have access to online, such as sight, touch, smell, sound. It is the same for consumers shopping online versus in-store.” (Doesn’t this sound a lot like how we describe the value of print?)

TikTok Made Me Buy It

Where shoppers are discovering products is changing, too. With the store closures and rapid acceleration of e-commerce during the pandemic, that has really shifted. Inputs are coming in to shoppers from a bombardment of sources.

Shoppers might discover a new product at a party, for example. Then they might hear their friends talking about the same product. Then they might research on it online. Even if they forget about the product, thanks to “listening” technologies through mobile phones, they might run into it with an Instagram ad. Then see it on their feed somewhere else, and hear someone else talking to the about it. So while the path to purchase may still be linear, the ”pie” of consumers attention is being split into increasingly more and more slices and the amount of time each component gets is smaller and smaller, too.

“It's a very different path than the traditional one in which shoppers would browse and find out about new products in stores or rely on typical advertising channels such as TV commercials, print ads, or ads on the internet,” says Canaves. “Now, it’s TikTok made me do it.”

This, both analysts note, is a problem for brands. With so many different channels, it is increasingly challenging to find that touchpoint with a client or a potential customer—and it’s not just the explosion in the number channels that is the challenge. It’s the exploding number of brands, as well.

Intersection with All Things Print

Taken together, we see an interesting opportunity for all things print. We regularly say that print is disruptive. Mail recipients can’t avoid it in their mailboxes. They can’t opt out. We also know from neuroscience studies that print has a unique ability (over digital) to engage the senses, the emotions, and ultimately drive greater response and motivation to buy, all the same factors driving the rebirth of retail.

For commercial printers, the proven power of print, combined with this retail rebirth, should open the door to some interesting discussions. If the goal is to engage the emotions, it will be fascinating to watch which applications are seen as the most influential in these new, reimagined retail locations. Will it be posters and backlit signage? Creative, mood-influencing floor and wall graphics? Personalized wallpaper? Certainly such applications are designed to “surprise, delight, and evoke emotion,” the words used by Canaves to describe the value of the new in-store retail experience.

On a smaller format scale, direct mail, with all of its tangible and potentially interactive elements, has this value, as well. This takes us to the USPS’s “Generational Research Report.” Here we find that the shoppers that are most engaged with the tangible, interactive elements of direct mail are the ones we would least expect, the youngest. Nearly half (45%) of Gen Zs find direct mail pieces with a unique size or shape to be most effective at motivating them, for example, compared to 24% of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. They were also the most likely to cite “large text” and “thick material/paper.”

This engagement does, in fact, drive sales. This survey of 4,000 consumers found that receiving “relevant” direct mail motivated respondents to take some kind of action. This includes going to a physical location to shop (26%). It also found that 21% of respondents had made a purchase after seeing an item in a mailpiece. Nearly one in five (19%) made a purchase after receiving a reminder in the mail. (Can you say, “retargeting direct mail”?) Print gets shoppers into the store, and if you can get them into the store, they will buy.

What Is Old Is New Again

Putting it all together, we might say, “What is old is new again.” As digital communications become increasingly prevalent and embedded into our society, it is inadvertently triggering a return to the sensory, the desire for personal interaction, that is the bailiwick of print. Except, “traditional print” looks a little different than it used to, and today’s “new print” is finding a new fit into the customer journey, too.