OPINION27 January 2014

Going wild for the aisles


Spring’s Stephen Phillips charts the rise of shopper marketing and insight, and explains why the specialism is here to stay.


Economies in Western markets began to return to some growth in the latter half of 2013. But in the world of marketing, there’s one area making a not-so-quiet rise. Shopper marketing departments are experiencing a boom.

This boom is leading to a reported 25% p.a. growth in shopper marketing/insight budgets. CFOs the world over are probably applauding the resurgence of the path to an actual purchase, as opposed to all the more ‘conceptual’ ideas marketing has been occupying itself with for so long.

Happily, us marketing (and research) folk can still get our teeth into some underlying trends for the shopper explosion. Developments in marketing’s relationship with science, technology, and business all reveal the why and how – and the why now – of this explosion.

The business

We’ll all be familiar with the impact the recession has had on consumers, but what about on the role of marketing itself? The key change has perhaps been a reversion to commercial pragmatism – or, put simply, the focus has become tactical: sell stuff, and quickly!

To do that, shopper marketing has needed to better understand the mindset, missions, and influence of touchpoints on the path to purchase. Throw in the added complexity of an increasingly multichannel world (and the demands for data this triggers from various parts of the business), and the scene is set for dedicated shopper insight teams that seemed a luxury as little as five years ago.

The science

The past three years have seen another rising star – this time of an academic origin – in the theories of behavioural economics. At its heart, behavioural economics is about decision-making. It answers questions about how people make decisions and shows that these decisions are often emotional, intuitive and not as precisely thought through as we might believe. Given the intuitive nature of this decision-making, it leads us to think more about the immediacy and impact of in-store environments, and less about the more thoughtful process of in-depth brand consideration.

Marketing has always had theories about human behaviour, of course, but what behavioural economics brought was experiments, evidence and – above all – results. Far more likely to grab the attention of the board by virtue of having these results, marketers have been applying behavioural economics perspectives to their activity ever since.

The technology

Business and science gave us the need, but not necessarily the ability to uncover shopper insights. That’s where technology comes in. Technological change has given us complex, multichannel purchases. On one recent Spring study, a customer journey for a shoe purchase took seven days, involved nine different types of touchpoint and occurred across five different technology devices, as well as old-fashioned word-of-mouth and store experiences.

Clearly it is not just about the in-store experience anymore. Instead, purchase journeys are a complex array of on- and offline touchpoints, along a journey leading to a decision point that may be more intuitive than considered. This more complicated world means that dedicated shopper insight teams are becoming essential to understanding consumers and the way they shop.

Technology has complicated the shopping process, but it also presents research opportunities. Consumer adoption of smartphones opened up mobile research: location-triggered surveys; in-the-moment pictures, video, and access to mindsets; even just tracking paths through stores. This has allowed us to uncover insights in the context of where decision-making happens, and at a useful scale.

Delivering depth

To be a fundamental change, the shopper insight explosion needs to change not only the way businesses are structured (to include shopper marketing and insights teams), but the way businesses think about people. Fortunately, shopper insights in 2014 feels able to do this.

“Technology has complicated the shopping process, but it also presents research opportunities. This has allowed us to uncover insights in the context of where decision-making happens, and at a useful scale.”

We’ve always known (or at least suspected) that consumers’ paths to purchase were complex enough to involve multiple mindsets. What’s great is research’s ability to follow this decision-making process.

Imagine the insight we can now collect on a typical grocery product purchase. A research app lets a consumer message us her purchase mission – let’s say a pint of milk – at the moment she writes it on her list. Then we get a ‘snacking moment’ message at lunch, with a photo showing us a range of unfamiliar milk options in the corner shop. This is repeated in the evening as she picks up dinner on her way home. An online platform then captures the sequence and we probe some more. While responding, the consumer realises exactly how she ended up with the last carton of organic milk from the superstore, instead of her usual purchase. The next morning we share the consumption moment that she’s filmed with a FlipCam, capturing her family as they comment that they should switch their regular list item to organic.

We can now deliver this significant depth of understanding by following that one person across multiple moments. The consumer has always been king in research departments, but in many ways they must now share that title with another: ‘the shopper’.

A sustainable shift?

We have seen how the recession has driven a focus on selling, contributing to the birth of shopper insight. So, as the economy improves, will we revert to pre-shopper structures? Almost certainly not – we believe that business, science, and technological changes have been significant enough to cement shopper as a core research function, supporting the increased importance of the shopper-marketing programme. When we see Mondel?z’s motion-tracking shopper research making the news, we can recognise the momentum and focus the industry is giving it.

So where does that leave us? The most important fact to remember is that the consumer has changed, too. $1.3 trillion of retail sales ( 40% of total sales) in 2013 are thought to have involved multi-channel decision journeys – ‘couch commerce’ has changed what shoppers are doing and what we need to understand.

This environment means we need to evolve the way we understand consumer journeys, taking advantage of the ‘always on’ consumer by understanding their mindset throughout each shopping occasion. Then we can use this new insight to plan new ways for our brands to engage with people, both when they are consumers and when they are shoppers – and at every point in-between.

Stephen Phillips is chief happiness officer at Spring Research


8 years ago

Interesting article and there’s certainly something going on to drive the focus on shopper we’re seeing in insight teams. It strikes me though, that with the exception of the few high-profile (and you’d imagine highly-spun) success stories about conquering multichannel, a lot of businesses continue to struggle – wouldn’t that suggest that it’s less shopper insight ‘leading the charge’ as much as shopper insight ‘on the ropes’? If there’s a grain of truth in that, what’s missing from the way businesses are approaching Shopper Insight?

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8 years ago

Isn't the truth that some brands are simply better than others at using shopper insights?! Part of the issue with omni-channel shoppers is that they challenge the traditional ‘silo’ structure. It’s one thing knowing the ideal way to increase shopper conversion is by integrating a mobile channel and an instore experience, quite another for mobile and retail teams to achieve that change by actually working together! I'm sure there are plenty of reasons for this – budgets, objectives, plain old politics (!) - but my gut feeling is that most brands are only just realising that it’s necessary, let alone implementing cross-channel approaches...

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