Amidst a cost of living crisis and constant technological advances, are consumers changing their online shopping habits? We surveyed online shoppers to find out what they seek from eCommerce retailers and to identify the channels they use and the motives behind their purchase journeys.

Generations display different online shopping habits on eCommerce marketplaces

Over three decades have passed since the internet opened for commercial use and paved the way for eCommerce marketing. Today, consumer habits in online shopping continue to evolve. However, 2024 has been a difficult year for online commerce in the UK, with shares plummeting and consumers returning to physical stores

This does not necessarily signal the end of online retail. On the contrary, even though businesses have been hit with higher prices from logistic costs, online advertising costs, and other sales variables, there is still room for eCommerce strategies to thrive. Online consumerism will likely continue as evolving technology brings us new ways to shop online.

Also, major store-based retailers that invested in boosting their online capabilities during the pandemic are unlikely to reverse their commitments. This current scenario presents both challenges and opportunities for small and medium-sized retailers.

Can modern disruptors like social media have a profound influence on SMB eCommerce and consumer behaviour? How can retailers adapt to new consumer habits in relation to these channels and technologies? Capterra conducted a global survey in twelve countries, with a total sample of 5,585 regular online shoppers, to better understand how they shop online. In this study, we will focus on the 499 online consumers in the UK. The full methodology can be found at the end of the article.

Search engines are typically the starting point for online shoppers 

Consumers can take different routes to initiate their purchase journey, whether that be searching for a specific product on search engines or seeing influencer reviews on social media. However, where do online shoppers start their consumer journey?

How do UK consumers start their online shopping journey

Despite the variations, customers embark on their search predominantly on two different fronts. Three-quarters (75%) of consumers start their online search on internet search engines, while, 55% state that they start on individual retailer websites or apps. As obvious as it may seem, the high volume of consumers who use search engines to initiate their shopping experience underscores the importance of search engine visibility for online retailers to reach customers. 

However, search engines serve as a means to an end. When it comes to finalising a purchase, most consumers (71%) prefer to buy their products on individual retailer websites or apps, followed by eCommerce marketplaces (49%) and department store websites (43%).

Five tools to help retailers attract consumers on search engines and their individual websites or apps:

With so many online shops available, it is harder to rely on stumble-upon effects for brand discovery. The internet is crowded, and businesses should find ways to better position themselves and attract potential consumers, both on search engines and on their own websites or apps. 

  1. Retailers should invest in search engine optimisation (SEO) tools to improve visibility and rankings on search engine results pages (SERPs).
  2. Extensive keyword research can help retailers optimise pages for relevant search terms. Long-tail keyword research should also be conducted to get a better understanding of what people are searching for within your niche.
  3. Along with this, companies can enhance their website and app navigation for a more seamless and user-friendly experience. This can include incorporating features such as intuitive search functionalities and personalised recommendations.
  4. Another step retailers can take to help shoppers when they visit their websites is to implement virtual assistants to provide real-time assistance and enhance customer engagement, while guiding consumers through their purchase. 
  5. The use of analytics tools can help identify demographic trends that give retailers more insights into their audience, such as what social media platforms they use or how they access their websites.

While search engines, individual retailer websites, and eCommerce marketplaces are the most popular ways to begin or finalise an online purchase, what role does social media play in today's online shopping habits?

Despite its potential, social media plays a fringe role in online shopping habits

Much has been said about the role of social media in brand awareness, and whilst not a majority, two in ten surveyed consumers say they typically begin their online search for products on social media. However, on a similar note to search engines, only 7% finalise their purchases on these channels. Still, 31% of these surveyed consumers who use social media to purchase expect their spending on social media to increase over the next twelve months. 

For those consumers who use social media in their purchase journeys, Instagram (69%), Facebook (54%) and TikTok (50%) emerge as the top platforms for product discovery. The reasons for using social media for their shopping may seem unsurprising but could condition the messaging and strategies businesses should implement when using these channels. Most of these consumers (73%) use social media to find products they’re interested in, while 61% use it to discover discounts and 58% use it to discover new brands. Also, 46% of consumers who shop on social media access these channels to discover small or local brands.

Why do online consumers use social to shop online?

Interestingly, despite social media’s reputation for facilitating interactions between consumers and brands, only 23% of consumers who start their search on social media channels do it for this reason. What’s more, 33% of respondents said they prefer not to interact with brands at all on social media.

Tips for businesses
Even though social media may not be as prominent as search tools or retailer websites for online purchases, consumers generally want personalised ads and discounts on these channels. Brands should still consider launching targeted social media marketing and advertising campaigns on social media platforms to reach relevant audiences and promote product discovery. This is even more relevant for small and local businesses.

Smartphones are the preferred device for online shopping

While search engines are the main source for initiating online purchase journeys, consumers have an array of sources to begin, narrow down, and finalise their purchases. This also rings true for the devices they use. Consumers shop online across multiple devices, with smartphones (47%) edging out laptops and desktops (46%) and tablets (7%) as the primary choice of device.

Given that consumers have two preferred devices, businesses should ensure that they have website and app responsiveness to provide an optimised user experience across different devices, in particular phones, laptops and desktops, to provide a seamless purchasing experience.

This also means implementing tools to facilitate mobile-friendly payment options, such as digital wallets, to streamline transactions on smartphones. Most importantly, businesses should make sure that they provide secure and convenient payment options to enhance their customer satisfaction. These payment options include:

  • Credit or debit cards: the preferred payment method for online purchases, chosen by 92% of consumers. 
  • Digital wallets: smartphone or smartwatch apps that can store payment details and different types of ID or credentials, chosen by 37% of consumers.
  • Buy now, pay later: services that divide a total purchase price into multiple payments, chosen by 18%.
  • Gift cards: Cards or tokens that can be exchanged for a specified cash value of goods or services from a particular business, given as a gift, chosen by 15% of consumers.

When it comes to purchase decisions, low prices and discounts are deciding factors 

Regardless of the channels they use, surveyed consumers have priorities when buying new products or services online. After understanding where people start their purchase journey and how they carry it out, what influences online shoppers to decide to purchase one brand or product over another? As might be expected during a cost of living crisis, the most important factors influencing their purchase decisions are low prices and discounts or promotions.

Factors influencing new online purchases

Additionally, user reviews and brand trust also emerge as key factors influencing purchase decisions. Along with delivering competitive pricing, retailers should prioritise building trust in their brand and curating positive user experiences to drive conversions. 

Even though trust is not easy to measure or quantify, there are several ways retailers can help garner brand trust. These include:

  • Be clear with your brand identity and vision, and ensure that messaging, pricing and actions are consistently aligned. 
  • Monitor your e-reputation to gather insights from customers that can be used to guide consumers in their online purchase journeys. Review management software can help collect testimonials and reviews, respond to negative comments, and improve customer perception of the product or service offered.
  • Engage with audiences through customer service or on social media channels. 
  • Show data compliance and transparency regarding purchase processes, while meeting GDPR requirements
  • Ensure user security while navigating on websites and also that their own pages are secure. This can include having secure checkouts that are validated with SSL certificates.

Price, quality, and rewards are the biggest influences behind brand loyalty

Retailers should strive to attract customers who repeatedly purchase from their brand. The top three reasons that motivate UK consumers to repeatedly buy from the same retailer are price (83%), quality (80%) and loyalty or rewards programs (49%). Consequently, customer loyalty programs should be considered to incentivise web purchases or social media engagement and reward loyal customers while catering to increasing demands for discounts.

With 83% of surveyed consumers participating in loyalty or rewards programs for grocery stores and 33% in beauty and personal care, the concept is not lost on consumers, and businesses that are not providing these programs could be missing out on strengthening their customer base. It’s no surprise then, that grocery stores (63%) and beauty and personal care (43%) were also the two categories where surveyed consumers tended to buy from the same brand instead of exploring different ones. Despite being underutilised in many sectors, loyalty programs can be beneficial for companies.

These reasons are not only influential in maintaining loyalty towards a brand, they can also motivate consumers to try other brands and retailers. Lower prices (84%), better quality (58%) and recommendations from friends or family (54%) are the main motivators behind consumers seeking other brands.

Businesses should hone their eCommerce, search, and social media marketing efforts to nurture brand loyalty 

As consumer habits in online shopping continue to evolve and adapt to new channels, small and medium-sized retailers need to adjust to these new demands. Search engines, optimised retailer websites, and eCommerce marketplaces play a pivotal role in initiating and finalising purchases. Consequently, retailers must make sure they have strategies and tools that help consumers access them through these channels.

Additionally, while social media plays a minor role in purchase journeys, targeted social media marketing and advertising campaigns can still be effective for brand awareness, especially for smaller and local retailers. 

Moreover, factors such as competitive pricing, discounts, brand trust and loyalty programs significantly influence consumer purchase decisions and brand loyalty. By understanding and adapting to these trends, retailers can better position themselves to thrive in their eCommerce strategies.

However, capturing the attention of consumers without tiring or overwhelming them is easier said than done. In the second part of our survey, we will explore how businesses can overcome the complexities of ad fatigue and dark social media use by embracing next-gen search solutions.

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Capterra’s 2024 Elusive Consumer Survey was conducted in April 2024 among 5,585 respondents in the US (500), UK (499), Canada (500), Brazil (497), Mexico (470), France(271), Italy (496), Germany (496), Spain (359), Australia (497), India (500) and Japan (500). The goal of the study was to learn about how today’s online consumers shop. Respondents were screened to have shopped online several times a month or more often.

Capterra interviewed 499 UK citizens. The candidates had to be UK residents over the age of 18.