Fans of progressive British rock might recognize the question that Pink Floyd asked over 25 years ago in their critically acclaimed album, The Wall. Today in the retail industry, it has new meaning. At times over the past six months, the economic climate we've been subjected to has seemed as apocalyptic and outlandish as anything Pink experienced on his journey towards isolation. Some marketers may be asking, what has happened? Where are our consumers? Why aren't people buying the things I'm selling? Or put more simply, and to quote another seminal British rock band, "where have all the good times gone?" (The Kinks, for anyone playing at home.)

But here's the thing: no matter how bad the economy might seem, people still need the things you're selling. And if they don't actually need them, they still want them. Only now, with portfolios crumbling, layoffs pervasive, and personal budgets tighter than ever, consumers are being much more selective and discerning with their money. I know I am...aren't you? I still need what I need, and I want what I want, but I'm going to make sure I'm getting exactly the right thing before I shell out any of my hard earned money. And I'm going to make sure I get it at exactly the right price. In short, I'm going to do my research.

For a discerning shopper, the Internet offers unfettered ability to do all the research necessary before pulling the trigger on any purchase, big or small. Search, in particular, puts all the information a shopper needs to make a decision right at his/her fingertips. And for the half of all sales affected by web research , shoppers are making the most of their access to this information.

Compete, Inc. and Google recently released a study that shows just this -- what they term the "latency of online conversions". In short, online purchases thus far in 2009 are not declining compared to 2008. Across almost all Retail sub-categories, in fact, they are on par, if not up slightly. What has changed, however, is the time it takes someone to purchase. Compete's research shows that in 2009, the amount of time between a shopper's first click and their actual purchase has increased, and that the number of conversions occurring within the first 24 hours is declining. Their research also shows the timeline of search-driven conversions , confirming what other research supports in that as many as half all search conversions occur after the first 24 hours.

So studies are good, but how about a real life example? I'll give you mine, but think about how you shop these days and how your consumers might be shopping. In my home we desperately need a new color printer/copier. Other things have been calling our paychecks over the past 6 months, so we've been putting up with the old printer for a while now, ignoring its interesting choice of colors. But now it's time, so I begin my quest for a new printer. I think I want one with lots of bells and whistles, but I'm not certain which features I need, what they all cost, and which brand makes the best all around printer. So I search.

I type "color printer" into Google. Lots of results. Lots of choices. I click on a few of the more interesting ads and links, but quickly realize I need some advice. So I search again, this time for "color printer reviews". More results, including a few paid links. After more clicks and more research, I'm thinking I'd like a laser printer/copier, want something that does photos really well, and don't care about a fax machine. So I try again, this time "multifunction laser printer". Lots of results again, but I'm smarter now and have a better idea of what I want. After a few more clicks it's down to 3 different brands. Hmmm... I'll probably take a day or two to think about it, and in my spare time I'll also check to see which stores/sites might offer the best price on those brands. I'll do a search for a specific model number and see what is on offer. Anyone offering free shipping? How about order online and pick up in store for free? Any sales? Any deals that include free ink or something extra? Where am I going to get the most for my money?

Ultimately, I'm definitely going to buy a printer. But you get the point - it's going to take me longer, and I'm going to do my research before I buy. So what can you as an advertiser do about this? How should you react to this evolving consumer behavior, and how can you use search marketing to continue to drive purchases of your products both online and offline?

Here's a short list:
  • Choose the right keywords. Expand your reach with keywords, remaining relevant to your products but getting into the upper funnel of a consumer's purchase consideration. Include more generic and research based keywords to make sure you connect with a user from the very start of their process. Using the "printers" example, consider keywords like "color printer", "laser printer", "multi-function printer", etc.
  • Make your ads compelling. Call out the things that matter most to consumers, and the things that set you apart from your competition. Getting them to click on your ad takes more than just appearing when they search. Give them a reason to visit your site and come back. Going back to the printers example, use statements like "affordable color printers", "get $100 off quality laser printers", or even just "get great deals on high quality printers".
  • Expand your conversion cookie. Take into account the longer consideration cycle of buyers today. Make sure you are regularly employing your Web Analytics data to make sarter choices. Monitor your website traffic as consumers visit and move through your site to see how they behave and interact with your site, and ultimately convert. Check out Avinash Kaushik's blog "Occam's Razor" for more information about the importance of using web analytics.
  • Be there the next time. And remember, one visit is likely not enough for them to decide to buy. If they come back it might be through another search, so be there again the next time they're looking. Ensure your keyword selection is complete, top to bottom, for all the products you offer. If you have what a shopper needs/wants, then the more you appear for relevant searches the more trust you will build with them.
Things will get better, but this evolution in consumer behavior may be here to stay (or at least for a while...we have short memories, after all). Don't ignore it. Change your behaviors and tactics in order to work best in this new landscape, and find ways to reach your customers every time they're looking for what you offer.