How to Understand Your Retail Customer Journey with a Needs-Based Approach

Blog Post
February 23, 2018

Understanding your customer’s needs and the value of the customer experience should be common by now. Unfortunately, when you look at many retail organizations, there are still only a handful that really get it. We’re seeing that these organizations don’t understand that customers are in different phases of their journey—and buyers in different phases have a different set of needs and will respond to different stimuli.

For example, the first stage in the customer journey is the problem recognition stage. In this stage, the customer has yet to consider any products. He or she is just recognizing that they have a problem they may want to solve with a product—and deciding whether or not its worth solving. It’s early in the journey, and these individuals surely do not want to be pressured into buying something, these are your  classic browsers and respond best to experiences that enable learning. Samsung has recently embraced this concept by opening an "experience center" center in NYC, where visitors can immerse themselves into the brand.


This graphic outlines the stages of the customer journey and the steps buyers go through in each stage.

By taking this approach, you build trust with the customer and will be top of the list when the customer decides to solve the problem and purchase a product. Think of it as the beginning of an adventure. 

The question for retailers is then: how do you succeed in retaining and growing business by both understanding and facilitating the full customer journey?

Ideas-Based Approaches are a Shot in the Dark

It’s become clear that one of the initial problems facing retail organizations is that they’re approaching the journey via an ideas-based approach rather than a needs-based approach.

Imagine a room full of marketers at a quality review meeting. They’ve presented themselves with a problem—for example, how to get customers to purchase again. So, they throw out a bunch of ideas: Coupons? A Sale? Promotions?

But our group of marketers is not understanding or taking advantage of the distinct stages of the journey and the unique needs within each stage. These ideas only meet the needs of a customer in the final stages of the journey—finishing up their evaluation of options and getting ready to purchase. If a customer is still considering their problem or gathering information, it's too early for a coupon or a sale.

Another problem with this ideas-based approach is that it's typically the loudest voices in the room are the first ones to get their idea worked on. The solution often becomes a “fail-fast” situation. You see this pop up a lot in Silicon Valley where the idea has caught on of creating a minimally viable product (MVP). That is to say, approaching the issue with the goal of trying different things in a low-cost environment to see what works and what doesn’t work. They keep trying lots of things quickly to see what works and what fails. 

Instead, retailers need to stop failing and start listening to customers' needs.


Understand the Journey Better with a Needs-Based Approach

Taking a needs-based approach allows you to understand that there are stages and different things the customer is looking to achieve within each stage of the customer journey. It also allows you to look specifically at which needs have to be resolved to get customers to make additional purchases (as in our retail example).

The way this works is to first understand all of your customers' many needs throughout the journey and how they relate to each other. Next, look at which needs are underserved or overserved from the customer's point of view. Focus first on where customers as a whole are dissatisfied (underserved). You can learn specifically how to do this here: Decoding Customer Needs with the Buyer's Journey Framework.

For example, during the early problem recognition and information search stages, you might find that your customers are being underserved through your promotional email marketing campaign. Perhaps they consider it irrelevant—or worse, annoying. This is because these early-stage buyers are looking to educate themselves, an upcoming trends newsletter would be more effective than a sales promotion. 

Once you have defined which parts of the journey are being underserved or overserved, the solutions to the problems become obvious. In mapping the needs of the customer, you can create a “landscape” to understand where opportunity exists as well as which needs and/or segments of the customer population are underserved. Then you can start talking about solutions. For example, irrelevant email could be fixed with a personalization strategy more relevant to the stage of the journey.  If customers are having trouble finding someone in-store to answer questions, make sure you have visible, well-trained, knowledgable employees on hand. (See? Obvious.)


This graphic is an illustration of a sample outcome when you understand the steps in the buyer's journey through a needs-based approach. Step 2 is particularly important to one segment. Steps 10, 12 and 15 are important to other segments. 

Avoid the Pitfall

With our retail example, we have to explore the most common pitfall: the belief that the brick-and-mortar store is just a mechanism to facilitate a purchase. The store itself is a place to create an experience that meets the needs of shoppers at various stages of their journey (read more about that here: How to Retain and Grow Retail Customers: Help Them Complete Their Jobs).

But to satisfy those customer needs, you must first thoroughly understand what they are. Without examining customers and the buyer's journey through a needs-based lens, we’ll continue to see the failure of larger retailers who don’t deliver on experience. They’ll go the way of Toys R Us, who didn’t understand the needs of what the customer would like best or want to experience in a retail environment. Taking a needs-based approach is the road map for success.