Shopper research has become widely recognised among brands and retailers as the best method to gain insights into customer purchasing decisions. But what are the current methodologies? How are they used and what are the industry challenges? Phillip Adcock at shopper behaviour researcher, Shopping Behaviour Xplained, offers an expert view
Consumer research has traditionally been the primary method used by retailers or brands wishing to gain insights into their customers’ desires and requirements, in order to maximise sales. In-store, street and focus group-based research have been the conventional methods for accessing insights.
However, over the last decade shopper behaviour has evolved to provide a more tangible way of getting into the mind of the shopper at the point of purchase. The pivotal point of this trend is the recognition the consumer and the shopper are very different beings – and therefore the analysis of the shopper requires a different approach.
Consumer research does not investigate at the time of purchasing, but rather enquires to the participant about memories of their consumption experiences. Shopper research focuses on understanding the brief moment in time when the consumer is shopping for products. In order to unveil true insights, specialist research tools have to be used.
From a psychological perspective, shoppers use their short term working memories for much of their everyday shopping activity. They shop instinctively, often completely unaware of the trigger that makes them choose an item, let alone be able to recall the trigger. So how effective is the research methodology, if the data gathering relies on talking to the shopper away from the aisle?
There are still few providers in the UK of shopper behaviour research. There are many purporting to offer it, but barely scratch the surface in terms of methodologies, technology, and more importantly, actual in-depth knowledge of human psychology.
People can acquire the technology, but that won’t mean they can put it to good use. Giving a man a hammer and nails won’t make him a carpenter; similarly giving a baker a hammer won’t provide him with what he needs to bake a cake. I believe many agencies have tried to get on the bandwagon of the popularity and growth of the shopper research arena, looking to open another revenue stream with a service they can’t effectively deliver.
So, why has it become so popular and what tools have been developed to keep it effective? It has become popular simply because, done properly, it can provide true insights which can help retailers and brands make positive changes to the bottom line – that has been proven time and time again from the projects we work on. The numbers don’t lie. We’ve worked in sectors ranging from FMCG, tobacco, wines and spirits and health and beauty to DIY, gardening and leisure – with brands that want advice on everything from effective layout to promotions. Clients include Kraft, Johnson & Johnson, Mars and B&Q.
In addition, research is constantly needed as the needs of the shopper are constantly changing. The pre-recession shopper wanted different things to the post-recession shopper. We found through our research significant changes and a shift in shopper priorities occurred in the recession: the growing trend for families to use a trip to the supermarket as a form of low-cost activity serving as entertainment; brand values disappearing as price became the main deciding factor in supermarket purchases and supermarket own-brands such as Be Good To Yourself and Finest having significant emotional brand equity in their own right.
The tools of the trade have evolved, but more importantly the way they are combined, and then coupled with knowledge of human psychology is what makes an effective approach. Eye-tracking is still widely used and effective – although it has been around some 10 years. Eye tracking has moved on, but what is more apparent is how the information is used. Brands recognise analysing what people fixate upon is of little or no benefit unless you know other things, such as whether they mentally process said fixation or not. The eyes won’t tell the true picture of what is being processed in the brain.
At SBXL, we combine eye-tracking with other methodologies, such as high-tech emotional analysis of participants’ facial expressions and other metrics connected with emotion. This way we can separate what they look at (fixate upon) and what they really see (mentally process). Having worked in shopper research for many years, we have built up experience, qualifications and training to carry this out. We have one of only a handful of the UK’s experts trained in Facial Action Coding System (FACS) on our team.
FACS was pioneered by Paul Ekman – whose work has been most recently portrayed in American TV series Lie to Me, which is based on the real life scientific discoveries of Ekman. This is a research tool used to measure facial expressions and de-code them, so brands can get into the mind of the shopper rather than rely on research based on the spoken word.
This is used in addition to knowledge and qualifications in human psychology – I can’t stress enough the importance of psychology, as it’s often not the information but what you do with it and how it’s interpreted that is the crux of the service.
Our research and experience, backed up by academic studies, demonstrates if brands and retailers are undertaking shopper research from which they hope to gain valuable insights, then serious consideration has to be given to the methodologies.
What is our secret? Well, we don’t want to give it all away on a plate, but undoubtedly good shopper research organisations need experience, credentials and an understanding of shopping using tried and tested methods and state-of-the-art technology.
I’d like to say it’s not rocket science – but it almost is.