30 Mar 2015 | Research & Business Knowledge

In-store research can yield fascinating insights into shoppers’ behaviour and how they view your brand. Yet to gain the most from it, there are some vital considerations, which we touch on in this article.

People find it fascinating when I explain the kind of tools and techniques we use in shopper research to get underneath the skin of how consumers behave in-store and unravel what they are really thinking and feeling about certain products and brands. For example we may ask them to wear special eye-tracking specs to see what grabs their attention and how they are comparing and contrasting products, or may ask them to replicate a purchase and observe how they navigate and behave, interviewing them afterwards to understand what was going on in their minds. We might intercept buyers in a Tesco aisle and ask for their critique of the shelf and how easy it is to shop.

Whatever the exact approach, such research can prove extremely powerful, as consumers have an array of stimulae right in front of them and can get fairly close to their real shopping experiences. Plus we can compare behaviour in different types of store, or on different kinds of mission, from browsing and topping up to distress buying. This enables us to more accurately unpick what is really going on in their minds and in their trolleys at point of purchase, beyond the top of mind answers they might give in a focus group or depth interview.

However, there are some pitfalls and considerations, as it’s not always easy to set up this kind of study. A few to bear in mind when planning such projects include:

  • The necessity to gain in-store permissions: Some clients imagine we skulk in the aisle with a voice recorder and pounce on unsuspecting shoppers, or pretend we are shopping with a friend and take them, undercover, to the right fixture. This is not professional practice and it’s far better to get the retailer on-side and gain their permission, especially as we may want to take photos, video footage etc
  • Asking the client for support with set-up: Others imagine that the research agency sets everything up with the retailers. Yet it’s the client who has close relationships with category managers and the in-store connections to gain permission for the study. Conversely the agency may struggle to know whose door to knock on, and will not have the persuasive gravitas of a big brand. Often there is a quid pro quo for the retailer, ie ‘if you let us do this research you can also ask a few questions, be party to some of the insights or get paid for the privilege.’
  • Pre-recruitment considerations: In most cases, it’s necessary to pre-recruit participants, and this needs to be factored into costing and resourcing. Very few shoppers have the time to drop everything for half an hour or more the moment they are asked to participate. Generally a recruiter is positioned in the relevant aisle, intercepts shoppers buying or browsing the right products and asks them to return a day or two later if they qualify to take part. By contrast, a short ‘intercept’ to ask just a few questions can be done on the spot.
  • Ensuring sufficient respondents of the right calibre: If doing a study about biscuits or detergent, chances are that it would be fairly easy to recruit a cross-section of the right candidates, for example ‘older people who buy X brand. Yet if it’s a more obscure or infrequent purchase such as cod liver oil, the chances of there being sufficient footfall in the right aisle are much lower. This needs to be thought through in advance to avoid drawing a blank on the day, by perhaps recruiting from other places or not making the selection criteria too difficult, eg ‘participants must be vegetarians under 25 who buy cod liver oil twice a month’. This may seem an exaggeration, but believe me, clients can ask for some rather ridiculous and impossible quotas at times!
  • Allowing time for analysis: Clients are obviously eager to get quick feedback. Yet it takes time to bring together the rafts of material created from interviews, photos, different stores, etc and develop the underlying story. Beyond just ‘he said this, she did that’, what it all means for the brand, what should be the strategy going forward, etc all takes some percolating and interpreting to ensure the most meaningful insights are forthcoming.

Bearing these elements in mind when taking on a shopper project can hopefully ensure a quality job, and make the life of that footsore interviewer standing by a chilly supermarket fridge all day with a clipboard so much easier!

Reproduced by permission of Nanda Marchant, March 2015. Nanda is founder of qualitative agency added insight ltd –