OPINION16 September 2009

Paco Underhill on shopping behaviour and MR’s failings


Part two of Manfred Mareck’s Esomar Congress report. The Wednesday afternoon session began with a keynote talk on consumer and shopper behaviour by Envirosell’s Paco Underhill (pictured) and follow up papers on corporate social responsibility and ethical consumerism. Read on…

Paco Underhill

Paco Underhill

Paco Underhill, CEO of Envirosell, opened the afternoon session with his observations of changing shopping behaviour around the world. One of his key points is that market research and its approaches to measuring shopping behaviour has not necessarily kept pace with changes in the real world of the consumer. MR has been focused too much on collecting sales data at the retail level, measuring ‘sales success’ but not providing much insight why products or brands often fail.

He is also sceptical about MR’s standard tool – asking people questions. He pointed out that what we say we do and what we actually do are often two very different things.

Today’s consumers have changed in many ways and they are often short-changed by both producers (just look at the clever pricing strategies that require a university degree to figure out how good a deal really is so that the vital link between price and value gets destroyed) as well as by retailers (who still favour male architects and designers to fit out their stores, even when most merchandise is aimed at women). The ubiquitous web and web-enabled mobile phones allow consumers unlimited price comparisons and secondary markets (eBay, Craig’s List etc.) and discounters are growing almost everywhere. One of the key tools to understanding shoppers, says Underhill, is to use multiple data collection techniques. Observation via in-store video capture, street interviews and shop-alongs has resulted in thousands of hours of sometime mundane but at times hilarious video footage. I could almost recognise myself as the confused male in a large department store, desperately trying to find a specific item without appearing to be totally lost.

Next, Claire Rutherford and Alan Bowman from Buzzz UK kicked off a series of papers on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethics. The fact that individuals often say one thing but act differently is also true when it comes to ‘ethical’ consumer behaviour – more people claim to recycle for example than actually do so. Buzzz recently conducted their own research and found four main drivers that are having an impact on people’s shopping behaviour. Confusion over supermarket labelling, habits (difficult to change during a recession), the pressure on household budget and finally the erosion of consumer trust in commercial and government institutions all contribute to this. Their survey also found that different population segments have reacted differently during the current recession. Buzzz gave 1,100 consumers online diaries to record their purchases, and followed this up with home visits, lifestyle interviews and observations, and discovered four different segments (evaluators, providers, achievers and believers). When promoting responsible consumerism different strategies need to be developed for each of the four segments and success rates will vary.

Fabian Echegaray of Market Analysis in Brazil stated that today in parts of Latin America (he focused on data from Brazil, Argentina and Mexico) commercial organisation invest as much in CSR campaigns and messages as government institutions and that consumers’ perception now is that government and business have equal weight when it come to CSR issues. To a large extent this is because conventional politics has lost trust with the electorate (eg. the drop in political participation), which enabled the commercial sector to set both a business as well as a social agenda. People now often feel more powerful viz corporations than their government and interest in CSR is now three times higher than political interest in these markets. Corporations have become competitors to government when it comes to social and environmental programmes and consumers are well aware to this change. Market research, said Echegaray, needs to adapt to these emerging consumer-citizens and their concern with sustainability.