FEATURE1 December 2011

Look what’s in store

Sainsbury’s director of insight and loyalty Andrew Mann tells Robert Bain how insight has helped the retailer through recessionary times.


Tell us what your job involves.
Andrew Mann:
My role is to listen to customers, understand what’s on their minds and what they’re looking for and then make sure the business orientates itself so that we focus on delivering what we need for customers. I run the Nectar loyalty scheme as well as run insights, and loyalty schemes do three things: they drive loyalty, they provide a way for us to listen to customers and they allow us to contact customers directly.

How did you end up in this job?
I’m not somebody who has spent their whole career in research. I’ve worked in lots of different companies. I worked for Cadbury-Schweppes for a long time, I worked for Coca-Cola, British Gas and Tesco in different customer-facing roles.

I am a scientist – a psychologist – and what scientists have always done is come up with a hypothesis and then rigorously test it. That’s what Newton did. The apple didn’t land on his head – he thought about things and tested them. And that’s what we do in Sainsbury’s, we listen to customers all the time, we continuously come up with hypotheses around what they want, and we test them in a very rigorous way. It’s all about triangulating data sources and different forms of information so that we can really understand what customers do.

What methods do you use?
All of our store managers run listening groups with our customers on a monthly basis. They run accompanied shops, and I and my team are continuously out in the stores, watching customers and seeing what they’re doing.

Listening groups can be as formal or as informal as you want – you can do some very selective recruitment, or you can just recruit people on the day and ask, what do you think of the shop this week? Customers will really tell you what they think, they don’t hold back. That’s one way we do it. The other way is traditional qual and quant research, and the third area where we’ve got some really unique capabilities is how we listen to customers by watching their behaviour through Nectar. Nectar’s a really key tool. The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour and you can really see what people are doing through the Nectar data.

If you put all three of those together you can really understand what customers are thinking and doing.

“Our whole vision is about making customers’ lives easier, and that’s driven out of insight. The insight team help to create and shape the business strategy right at the beginning”

Andrew Mann

Andrew Mann

How do you make sure research has an impact on the business?
The difference between research and insight is that research is technical, insight drives action. If you want to have effective insight you have to have board-level commitment to being focused on customers, and that’s what we have at Sainsbury’s. Our whole vision is about making customers’ lives easier, and that’s actually driven out of insight. You need that board-level commitment so that you don’t get to a situation where you think of what you’re doing and then you go and ask a market research person. The insight team help to create and shape the business strategy right at the beginning.

I’ve got the best job in the world, really. I work for a business that’s passionate about customers, and has given me the job of listening to customers and telling the business what customers want and then we’ll go and do it. So in a lot of respects it’s the easiest job in the world.

What’s your budget like?
We spend what we need to spend to do what we need to do. Good research doesn’t have to be expensive. It goes back to John and Mary Sainsbury who set the business up in 1869 – they just listened to people.

How have you seen consumer behaviour change in the last few years?
We know that customers are very cautious at the moment. We know that they are worried about what’s happening in the economy and changing their behaviour quite dramatically in terms of how they’re shopping, how they’re eating.

If you look at the last three or four years, pre-recession customers were ‘spend, spend, spend’ and you had a group of people who’d never lived or worked as an adult in a recession. Then Northern Rock [the bank that was bailed out in 2007 ] happened, and a lot of people went into panic and had to learn new behaviours. And actually some of the things they learned were quite good – it’s nice to save money, shop around and do new things.

Then after the election, since the austerity measures really hit, we’ve seen customers being very cautious. They’re buying less, wasting less, they’re cooking differently, they’re putting more things in the freezer.

What they were looking for was things that would be easier for them. ‘Live well for less’ is a perfect umbrella for that. It came from pretty deep research but actually it’s true to what Sainsbury’s has always been. When John and Mary Sainsbury first set up, their tagline was ‘Quality perfect, prices lower’. ‘Good food costs less at Sainsbury’s’ ran for 25 years. So ‘Live well for less’ is just a slightly different way of saying what we’ve always done that’s very relevant for now.

What new research techniques do you find interesting?
We use a lot of online methodology now, tied into Nectar, to understand very quickly what customers are thinking. We spend quite a lot on our stores, and we want to listen to customers and understand what’s good and what’s not so good so we can fix it. We do that by either printing a coupon at the till and asking them to come [online] and tell us, or sending them an email.

The other way is Facebook. It’s actually a pretty good way of understanding what customers are thinking. One of the areas we’ve just launched is Sainsbury’s Brand Match – we instantly match the price of our branded basket to Tesco and Asda. We used Facebook to hear very quickly what customers were saying as soon as we launched.

How mature is your use of social media for research?
It’s still something we’re developing. It’s almost like an ongoing listening group. We’ve got a team of people and anybody who posts a comment, we will respond to them and have a two-way conversation with them. We have call centres which take calls from customers, we answer emails, we answer letters – Facebook is just another way that we can contact customers and they can contact us.

What about in-store technology?
We do the eye-tracking stuff, we have some stores set up so you can see where customers are going with their trolleys, so you can look at a whole store and understand their movement and what’s happening. We’ll use whatever
we need to.

Supermarkets seem to have kept consumers’ trust amid the economic trouble in a way that some organisations haven’t. Why do you think that is?
Trust is earned. The way we use data is really important, and that is one of the biggest things customers don’t trust in government and banks. We take how we use data extremely seriously. I personally want to make sure that I can look you in the eye and say, we are treating your data very securely, we’ll use it in a way that’s responsible, and you will get benefits from it. And if customers see a benefit, if we make their lives easier, then they’re happy for us to use their data.

1 Comment

12 years ago

First of all, excellent interview. AM - You state "The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour". I'd like to question if that is true. Do rising shares keep on rising? Does a winning team keep on winning? It almost assumes change doesn't happen or admit that we are unable to predict it. Whereas I would tend to agree more with your point that "Customers are changing their behaviour quite dramatically in terms of how they’re shopping, how they’re eating." I think with the methods you described above you can try to predict changes or at least capture them very early on with research. The same as the most successful traders would do.

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