Finding Insights at Retail’s Moment of Truth

Traditional survey research has always been a powerful tool with which to assess and track brand strength. A long time client advocate of brand tracking once asserted to me that he liked his odds of capturing meaningful share of customer if he could keep his products within the target consumers’ consideration set.  But over time that same client, and many others have recognized that in today’s hyper competitive retail environment, particularly in carefully considered decision categories, it’s a dangerous precedent to leave the moment of truth to chance.  Born out of this reality is an increasing need for consumer product researchers to gain access to those moments of conversion.

Much of my firm’s consumer purchase journey work in a variety of sporting goods categories has shown that our client’s original hypothesis was correct on one level.  Without a strongly marketed brand, one risks falling out of the consideration set, and that is a non-starter for product sell through.  To recall an old New York State Lottery campaign, “you’ve got to be in it, to win it.” However conversion at the point of sale is hardly guaranteed in today’s dynamic, promotion laden retail environment.  Particularly in high involvement categories, where product trial, and at least a general comfort level with often complex product feature sets are pre-requisites to a sale, there’s much opportunity for retailers to bait and switch or migrate customers from the brand or SKU that was the front runner, prior to entering the retail environment.  We’ve observed such sales floor practices to be quite frequent, and with the stakes high, a well timed in-store promotion or retail sales contest in support of a competitor, can often lay to waste even the most aggressive advertising. Thus the deployment of observational retail immersion and simulation modalities have become incredibly valuable windows to recognize and identify these dynamics.  Well implemented, these disciplines enable researcher and client to capture disruptive sales practices, monitor the scope and impact of visual merchandising and POS promotions, and perhaps most importantly, shadow and introspect on the customer’s journey from front door to cash register.

Tools and Tactics 

The discipline of in-store research or retail simulation is often qualitative by nature of its high relative cost and lengthy time requirements to conduct it effectively.  This research, if organically conducted at actual retail, typically requires multiple full days of immersion on the retail floor across multiple doors and markets, replete with hours of low productivity when store traffic is light or absent potential intercept respondents who meet a project’s screening criteria.  For that reason, we’ll often deploy a mix of pre-recruited respondents along with intercepts.  To rely solely on one or the other, often sacrifices the breadth of insights that can be derived across both scenarios.

For our team, a typical retail immersion will comprise general in-store ethnography or shop-alongs with this mix of pre-recruited and pre-qualified intercept customers followed by off floor IDIs and debriefs that allow for the use of a variety of projective techniques and probes that don’t always readily lend themselves to the actual sales floor experience.  The IDIs also can show retention of product benefit messaging as well as the true impact of sales staff intervention, where relevant.

The shop alongs are often the most telling.  By letting the respondent engage at retail without moderator directed behavior, allows the researcher to see how the customer interacts with sales people and visual merchandising elements.  Carefully delivered probes and questions by the moderator can tap into not only visceral and immediate reaction to actual products, but glean a better perspective of the process of narrowing down initially considered brands to the ultimate purchase, itself.  One technique that we’ve often deployed successfully, is to ask the respondent to take on the role of “tour guide” or trusted friend and consult to the moderator who is positioned as being in the process of considering a variety of products.  Where a respondent does not actually make a purchase, we’ve often built in follow-up longitudinal phases, where respondents receive a digital camera that they utilize for recording and returning video diaries to the researcher upon subsequent store visits and/or steps in the purchase process.  Here, we often see the role of online merchants as either augments to the in-store experience or actual transaction facilitators.

A less time intensive, more cost efficient but also more artificial/limited approach is to recruit respondents into live, simulated environments in a central location testing facility and begin by exposing each to a multi-brand product display to observe which products a respondent initially gravitates to, and probing accordingly. Dependent upon the products to be tested, these are often quite effective in packaging tests, where simulated, multi-product displays can rotate the appearance of the competitive set of packages within a store facing, thus eliminating any bias for actual product placement.  Because an actual purchase isn’t being transacted here, we often follow-up the random shopping exercise, by isolating a limited set of test and control products and then taking the respondent through a variety of price sensitivity batteries to render insights on perceived value and assumed differentiating features for each product.

Jon Last is President of Sports and Leisure Research Group, a full service marketing research consultancy serving the sports, travel and media sectors with consultative custom research.  Learn more at www.sportsandleisureresearch.com

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