Envision the ‘Future of Search’ the largest e-retailer on the planet. Now, that’s one heck of a design brief.

When it comes to e-commerce today (and upon writing this, the latter part of 2019), many experts in the field will explain the shift from brick and mortar to online sales via a simple equation:

purchases = price + selection + convenience

Consider Amazon using this formula and their flywheel model starts to make perfect sense. Drive sales with lower prices, which leads to more customer visits, which attracts more sellers and, in turn, increases their volume and product selection.

The underlying problem with approach, however, is once the competition catches up and offers similar offerings (same-day delivery, a large selection, and lower prices), Amazon would be quick to lose the upper hand.

Let’s take a step back.

Why do people purchase things today in the first place? Is it for utility? To showcase a skill? We prodded around to understand more:

    • 12 stakeholders:
      interviews with science, engineering, design, and PMs

    • 3 countries:
      shop-alongs in France, Spain and US

    • 100 articles:
      covering over 50 retail competitors

Shopping journeys today vastly differ from 4-5 years ago. The explosion of information and product availability also means a mountain of choices and decision-making moments, even for the smallest purchases. A person may go from getting inspired to going to the store, then go back to researching for something better, drop off again, then a few months later purchase the item once they’ve decided they ‘know enough.’

A shopping journey for someone looking to buy a new TV.

Fortunately, there’s a pattern behind this madness, much of it based on basic human behavior. We found people to be innately curious, not only learning about the worlds they enter and enjoying richer product information, but learning about themselves as they continually question and evolve who they are and how they live. We learned a level of “white glove” service isn’t too much to ask for. That people want to be with like-minded people, to feel like they belong. For next-gen retailers to be successful, they must realize the importance to have credibility, authenticity and built trust, one customer at a time.

The way customers make purchase decisions today is more complex and nuanced than the traditional “sales funnel” model. Each of the phases they actually move through—motivation, information processing, implementation, and experience—are associated with different cognitive mindsets, needs, and goals. Understanding these core drivers of customer behavior, and helping customers reach each of these phase-specific goals, is imperative to provide a personally rewarding shopping experience.

Decision Making Model (2018).

In our Decison Making Model, co-developed with Linda Couwenberg (our staff behavioral scientist), we broke down these shifting mindsets during the shopping journey into 4 distinct phases:
Motivation.A variety of intrinsic or extrinsic triggers can motivate a hedonic or utilitarian shopping intention.
Information Processing.
Customers process information by search and refinement, to reach a level of satisfaction or satiation (hedonic), or a level of confidence to make a decision (utilitarian).
Customers feel ready to commit to their choice, and go from an intention to action mindset: How, when, and where am I going to make a purchase?
Post-purchase feelings of satisfaction or regret can lead to a variety of short-term (e.g., sharing) and long-term (e.g., habits, loyalty) behaviors.
From here, Amazon can orchestrate different initiatives to solve for the customer needs (and jobs to be done) depending on the context in their target customer’s shopping journey. These efforts can range from providing people with new ways to gain inspiration, to empowering confidence in the product search results, to improving the recycling process at the end of a product’s lifecycle. 

What I found most intriguging was how people express themselves through the things they own in order to imagine a brighter future through a product’s possibilities (or at least its promise). And the tools we build to help with that product search, in a way, are tools to help people find themselves

So what’s my recommendation to Amazon and any next-gen retailer interested in the ‘Future of Search?’ Try pivoting from a brand that delivers material goods to a brand that enables lifestyles. Do this through empathy with your customers, by showing them the world of possibilities of what you can offer. Do this knowing that it’s ultimately the shared experiences and relationships that people value, which in turn informs the things they carry.

I’ll leave with a final word from one of my favorite poets, David Whyte.
We shape our self
to fit this world

and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible

working together
in common cause,

to produce
the miraculous.

I am thinking of the way
the intangible air

passed at speed
round a shaped wing

holds our weight.

So may we, in this life

to those elements
we have yet to see
or imagine,
and look for the true

shape of our own self,
by forming it well

to the great
intangibles about us.

—David Whyte from ‘Working Together,’ The House of Belonging