OPINION22 July 2010

The untapped potential of shopper research


Nunwood’s James Walker on why shopper-focused research remains underused, and what practitioners can do to raise its profile.

A couple of months back I sat on a panel at the first Research retail conference, which gave me a new perspective on current thinking in shopper research and how the field needs to change to gain traction. I’m just back from the Shopper Insights in Action show in Chicago – an impressive series of presentations from US companies showing how focusing on ‘shoppers’ rather than ‘consumers’ can be transformational for retailers and consumer goods brands.

But even in the US I was struck by the relative immaturity of the field. The majority of presentations reflected pilot studies or small-scale exercises, and I couldn’t help thinking that the breadth of techniques (everything from neuroscience to simulated stores to database analytics) might betray a lack of confidence about what shopper research actually is.

“Market research has largely focused on trying to understand people as consumers, but since the late 1990s there has been an increasing noise around the need to understand people as shoppers”

For as long as it has been around, market research has largely focused on trying to understand people as consumers, but since the late 1990s there has been an increasing noise around the need to understand people as shoppers, led by FMCG businesses such as P&G and Unilever and a growing concern with the activity of retailing. While the consumer and the shopper will often be the same individual, and their motivations are obviously linked, there are some marked differences which are worthy of consideration. These are driven by circumstances such as the time available in which to shop and the wealth of choice available in many product categories. The responses to these circumstances, through which people select products for purchase in retail environments (often referred to in the business as ‘the first moment of truth’) are significant for merchandising, brand promotion, price and value mechanics which are tailored to the shopper’s mindset.

In recognition of the fact that shopping is often a rapid and subconscious behaviour, techniques have been developed in shopper research to overcome the clumsiness of human recall, with greater emphasis being placed on observation. Video observation, mobile eye-tracking and recently electroencephalography (a way of measuring brain activity) have enabled researchers to watch shoppers, see through their eyes and even peer into their minds as they choose between products.

All of these techniques and more can benefit retailers in a hugely competitive world if accurately deciphered. But instead of being the norm, much of this outlook remains the domain of a small number of CPG manufacturers. The majority of businesses, retailers and product manufacturers remain less concerned with changing their organisational structures to put the shopper at the heart of their strategy. At the Research retail conference in May, chairman Siemon Scamell-Katz said many organisations remain in the dark about the value of shopper-centred insight, and on the whole the cultural change required to embed a shopper-centred strategy within businesses is lacking.

Nevertheless shopper research is beginning to gain wider traction, with a 2008 study by GMA/Deloitte predicting a boom in the coming five years. This optimism is also reflected in the activities of large corporates in the MR industry such as TNS Research International, which over the past couple of years has acquired shopper insight boutiques including Scamell-Katz’s company, ID Magasin (now TNS Magasin), and Sorensen Associates.

“Perhaps some businesses avoid shopper research because they are nervous of the techniques used. Consumer research, although it has its limitations, is seen to steeped in traditional method and deemed safe”

Looking to the clientside, perhaps some businesses avoid shopper research because they are nervous of the techniques used. Consumer research, although it has its limitations, is seen as steeped in traditional method and deemed safe. Because of its infancy and its adoption of what seem unknown and novel approaches, shopper research is often not seen as a priority for many businesses and as a consequence budgets for it tend to be smaller, meaning that truly strategic and innovative work does not get off the ground, and those who dabble often do not see tangible returns.

Shopper research programmes are often viewed by clients as expensive in comparison to other more consumer-focused research and business investments. While Danielle Pinnington of Shoppercentric was quick to highlight that plenty of shopper issues can be tackled with relatively modest investment, the overwhelming sense from conference speakers was that techniques such as eye-tracking, video observation and, increasingly, neuroscience were often indispensible in a quest to understand and influence the often habitual and subconscious behaviour of shoppers. Inevitably such sophisticated approaches come with a price tag to match.

This requirement to employ techniques which are often novel to the clientside research manager also raises the potential for shopper research to be viewed as complicated and technical, a perception often perpetuated by practitioners who focus on the sophistication of their techniques in order to justify the price tag they carry, rather than the results they can achieve.

So what can practitioners do to raise the profile of shopper research?

If we are to move away from just tinkering around the edges with tactical and potentially less impactful insight, then we need to be realistic about the status of shopper research within the individual client’s business and whether it is likely we’ll secure the budget needed for shopper research programmes which have the ability to deliver real strategic value. Potential clients need to be educated that a tailored approach will deliver greater ROI for their business and those approaches with the biggest price tag need to be justified in terms of the insight they deliver.

Following from this, we need to change the way the budgets associated with significant shopper research programmes are justified. Rather than selling projects to clients on the basis of the ‘sophisticated’ approaches that they employ, we need to focus on the value they deliver.

We also need to make sure that we engage with the decision-makers in a business. That way, research findings will be acted on and recommendations implemented. Engaging senior management with the inherent value of shopper marketing, experiential retail design and shopper research will optimise the efficacy of these endeavours and help forge relationships to build on the insight we gain. Rather than doing the research and then expecting the client to get on with implementing our recommendations, we need to work with them to make sure recommendations are understood and help activate change within the business.

Capturing the subconscious responses of shoppers and understanding the path to purchase in more detail will in turn affect whether or not a product is picked off the shelf and in the long run, drive revenues for those businesses that are willing to understand the advances being made in market research.

The mandate of the research provider is changing. Increasingly we need to develop closer ties with the businesses we serve, looking through the lens of both the consumer and the shopper, and acting as consultants in the process of organisational, operational and cultural change.

James Walker is chief strategy and corporate development officer at Nunwood

1 Comment

12 years ago

James makes some good points here and I was also at the same conference and struck by the number of 'sophisticated' techniques which were showcased and then finished with 'the need to interpret these qualitatively or post rationalise with the consumer'. Indded the rush to these techniques was described by one delegate in a chat over coffee as playing to the need to show something more visual to clients - not sure this delivers the value James refers to yet. Contrast the cost of a programme of accompanied depth shopping trips with eye-tracking or brain measurements and show me where the better value option lies!

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