The Pinball Path to Purchase

Posted on Posted in retail strategy

In the religion that is Shopper Marketing, one of the central beliefs is the “Path to Purchase”. For many marketers, the 5 or 6 step Path to Purchase (P2P) is writ in stone like the 10 Commandments. But is it time for non-believers to smash the P2P and come up with a new model?

For those new to Shopper, what is the P2P in the first instance? It’s simply a framework for thinking about the shopper’s journey from the moment they become aware of a product or service, to the point at which they open their wallet. And it’s nothing new. In fact, the P2P is derived from a concept called the “Purchase Funnel”, which was invented in 1898 by an American adman by the name of E. St. Elmo Lewis. His theory of a staged purchase process was further developed later into the AIDA model (every salesperson knows this one) – Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action.

Imagine that. A 19th century construct for a 21st century shopper. If nothing else, that nice, neat linear model has been made gloriously messy by the advent of digital, and smartphones in particular.

That’s why I’ve reframed today’s version of the P2P as the “Pinball Path to Purchase” (and I’ve been greatly influenced in my thinking by Westfield’s Director of Marketing, John Batistich). The idea is that instead of shoppers moving in a straight line from sofa to sale, they bounce around all over the place. And at any point they could be influenced to purchase. It doesn’t mean that the shopper’s behaviour is scattergun, but it can follow a much less predictable path than in times past.

So for instance, a shopper may go to the mall, be inspired to buy in a physical store, but then delay the purchase till they indulge in a bit of couch commerce via a tablet at home that evening. Or they may never visit a store in the first place, preferring to shop online. Or they could whip out their smartphone in a shop, then compare prices and purchase on Amazon.

As Peter Huskins of Shopability notes, “it is the multitude of different pre purchase touch points that are now available, and are being continually re-invented, that drives much of the ‘pinball bouncing’.”

The Pinball P2P is likely to loop back on itself too, by taking into account repurchase and loyalty.

While the Pinball P2P is more complex than a direct path to purchase, I find that it’s still useful to map out a customer’s course of action as best you can. Preferably with the benefit of research and data (or at the very least observation research), you need to figure out the shopper’s likely state of mind and behaviour at each point along the way, leverage those insights, and plan appropriate messaging and triggers to suit.

If you Google “death of path to purchase” you get almost half a billion results. For my money though, I don’t think St. Elmo Lewis’ model is dead, but I do think it needs to be re-imagined for the age in which we live.

One thought on “The Pinball Path to Purchase

  1. Thanks Jon,

    Good piece. Of course – very few people are using the fabulously named St. Elmo Lewis’ model anymore – in the last twenty years I’m aware of at least fifty different path’s to purchase, or purchase funnel models. Most agencies have them.
    What is different about yours (and indeed the way I look at this) is that it is definitively a shopper path, whereas most iterations are still ‘consumer’ paths.

    The concept of ‘pinball’ is a nice one – wish I’d thought of that. Of course – the path to purchase was never linear – people have used multiple ‘stops’ along the way for a very long time – as I point out in the post here ( – web forums have been around for twenty years: word of mouth for even longer: people have always gone to a store, then checked it out with friends, etc. Digital and mobile merely makes this more transparent.

    One of the other failings of models such as Mr Lewis’ is that it looks at a journey starting at awareness. Most paths to purchase don’t start here. Most purchases are repetitive – buying products we know about, or have tried, or buy every week. Tracing this journey back to awareness is a little futile.

    Each shopper goes on a journey which (ad here i would challenge you) begins not with the shopper becoming aware of your product or service – but with a consumption need. This need is interpreted by the shopper, and turned into a shopper mission (see

    Thanks for sharing your thinking – look forward to seeing more!

    All the best,


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