This article makes the case that consumers want certainty more than anything else when shopping online. This is information that any brand owner can run with to improve their brand and eventually make an amazing exit.

There has been so much written over the last two years about the consumer’s great shift to digital – and PYMNTS has contributed our fair share to that subject. Many of those storylines have documented the what and the how of that shift: how many people are shopping online or ordering from aggregators or working from home or using telehealth services, what devices they are using to engage with these digital touchpoints, how the reopening of the physical economy is affecting their digital behaviors or not.

Most of that reporting points to the convenience of digital — the ease with which consumers can engage with their favorite brands leads to the acceleration of that inevitable move to more digital, less physical. Once consumers get hooked on how easy it is to order pantry staples from Amazon Subscribe & Save or coffee on subscription from their favorite direct to consumer brand or dinner from a delivery aggregator or anything retail from any brand online, those online habits will stick.

That’s all true.

Eight (8) percent of the U.S. adult population uses Amazon Subscribe & Save to order CPG products, and 20.3 percent of all consumers now have some kind of retail subscription. The average number of retail subscriptions per consumer is five, a 100 percent increase year over year. Forty (40) percent of consumers still order food online from aggregators, even as they return to dine-in at restaurants, and 31 percent of consumers buy at least some of their grocery products online. When it comes to retail products, 45 percent of consumers make purchases online, even as COVID recedes and consumers go back into stores.

More important than the what and the how, though, is the why.

The nearly 40 studies across 11 countries that PYMNTS has done over the last 24 months, touching a national sample of nearly 100,000 consumers, shows the why of the consumer’s digital transformation: it’s the certainty of their experiences with businesses and brands when digital is embedded into the consumer’s daily life.

Why Before What

After two years of living with uncertainty as a consequence of managing life in a global pandemic, consumers are using mobile and digital to create certainty across each of the ten connected economy pillars that represent their day-to-day experience.

It’s why consumers want the certainty of curbside pickup for the things that they need right away, and are also perfectly fine with two-day delivery for the things that can wait.

Auto-refill subscriptions for center-of-the-store grocery items create the certainty that essential pantry items will show up the fifth of every month without fail — and eliminate the risk that consumers will run out. Certainty is also why 82% of consumers still walk into grocery stores today to inspect the grocery products they’re uncomfortable having anyone but themselves pick out.

The certainty of knowing whether a desired item is in stock in a store is why consumers consistently rate inventory availability as a critical merchant feature. Better to know that an item is out of stock than to risk an uncertain trip to the store.

Certainty is also why consumers with restaurant subscriptions are more loyal to those brands and spend more money with them. The predictability of the experience reduces the risk of a disappointing outcome.

Certainty is one of the reasons why so many consumers still go to the pharmacy to pick up their prescriptions even though delivery and online options are available for a fee. The ability to ask questions of the pharmacist is an important part of making consumers feel more comfortable taking the medications their doctors prescribed.

Patients still want the certainty of a diagnosis delivered face to face with their healthcare provider, even though telehealth use has surged since March of 2020 — and even though patients prefer digital channels to make appointments, get test results and pay their bills.

The 2022 Global Digital Shopping Index, the second annual PYMNTS study of the global digital shopping behaviors of consumers and merchants in Australia, Brazil, Mexico, UAE, U.K. and the U.S. — done with the support of Cybersource —finds that more than a third of consumers — 34 percent — across six countries now take their mobile phones into the physical store to shop.

Why?

Consumers use their mobile phones in the store to get product information and reviews, access coupons and discounts and compare prices. Their phone in the store creates the certainty, in real time, that they’re buying the right products for the right prices for themselves and their families.

Payments as Certainty

One of the more fascinating findings of that study is the relationship between payments choice and preferred merchant status with a consumer. Surprisingly, perhaps (and happily for all of us payments peeps), across all six geographies that we studied, the ability to use their preferred payment method at checkout was the number one reason consumers said a merchant was their go-to.

It wasn’t just what they said.

Based on a statistical analysis of their recent shopping transactions, we found that consumers were 63 percent more likely to do business with a merchant that offered their preferred way to pay than those that did not. Certainty and predictability of the payments experience at checkout increased conversion for those merchants.

We also see strong evidence of the relationship between payments and the predictability of the consumer shopping experience in the rising popularity of BNPL solutions — across all income and demographic groups. Whether consumers are using BNPL to build credit or as an addition to the credit products already available to them, consumers say they like the certainty of knowing that a purchase will be paid in full after making a series of equal installment payments. For many consumers, BNPL has shifted their mindset away from credit as a way to finance a purchase after it’s been made and toward the certainty of knowing how long it will take, and how much in total, to pay for something before hitting “buy.”

We also observe the importance of certainty for the majority of consumers who use lease-to-own payment methods for making a purchase but never turn the products back in. Consumers who have limited financing options and need to make a durable goods purchase — an appliance, a laptop for their child, tires for their car — appreciate knowing that they can return the product and forgo further payments if necessary. That escape clause gives consumers the peace of mind to buy what’s needed regardless of their credit history.

According to the 2021 PYMNTS Disbursements Study, U.S. consumers are willing to pay a fee to receive disbursements instantly. Whether or not the consumer actually needs the money instantly is irrelevant — consumers want the certainty that the money owed is available for them to use when they want those funds.

On the B2B payments side, the lack of certainty over when payments are received is a key accelerant to digital shift of business payments. According to a PYMNTS study, 60 percent of CFOs say that digitizing payments is critical to improving the health of their balance sheets and creating the cash flow certainty necessary to run their businesses.

Trust and Certainty

I had a chance to preview survey findings from a study we are doing with a client interested in better understanding what builds consumer/merchant trust in an online environment. The first readout of those findings is pretty fascinating. We see that consumers who trust their online merchants deliver a better lifetime value as measured by a number of different dimensions — and significantly so. For the details, I’ll leave you in suspense until the report publishes a few weeks from now.

Just as interesting is quantifying what trust means to consumers when shopping online. It’s largely been a bit of a black box, mostly couched in general terms such as “delivering a great experience” or “making it easy, convenient and safe” for consumers to do business with an online brand.

Digging further, it’s much more nuanced.

Building trust with a consumer is linked to how well merchants deliver the features that create certainty for that consumer — and doing so in a way that makes it easy for consumers to find and take action. Building consumer trust goes beyond keeping their data private and secure — that security is no longer a source of differentiation, but the consumer’s expectation.

The F.I.T. Framework

About 18 months ago, I introduced the concept of the F.I.T. framework as a methodology for examining the hot spots for the digital shift that was unfolding in real time. The framework considered the interdependencies of Friction, Inertia and Time as a way for companies to evaluate the potential success of their digital strategies. Strategies that eliminated frictions and could save consumers or businesses time, would have a positive impact on their willingness to change — reducing the inertia that often stands in the way of change.

COVID was obviously a huge incentive for consumers and businesses to shift digital at the same time and for the same reasons. The frictions of engaging in the physical world for any reason — shopping, eating out, seeing a doctor, going to a movie or an amusement park, to the office, traveling — were too high. Digital was how consumers and businesses made it through those very dark and uncertain times.

After two years of living in a digital-first world, consumers now expect physical to be part of their digital experience, rather than just another channel for engaging with a brand. With information at their fingertips, consumers can reduce the risk of an unsatisfactory outcome or a bad experience that wastes time. Digital gives consumers a more efficient way to assess the tradeoffs of where to spend their time and money — and in real time.

In 2022, the friction for consumers is now the physical world experience. Time is the consumer’s most precious commodity — and in the aftermath of COVID, consumers use it differently. As eager as consumers are to reengage in the physical world, they may be held back by the uncertainty of the experiences they’ll find when they do, thereby creating inertia.

At the same time, the digital transformation of every pillar of our connected economy is in full swing, and innovators are using technology and payments and data to lay new digital tracks to transform how consumers work, shop, eat, stay well, connect with others, pay, bank, have fun and live in their homes.

In most of these cases, consumers are latching onto experiences that give them certainty — or will over time as the digital transformation of solidly physical-first experiences such as healthcare improve. They want certainty that they won’t face frictions, that they’ll save some time and get a better outcome. Then they’ll shake free from their bonds to the old physical ways of doing things.

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