Posted by Alan Nazarelli ● Fri, Jun 05, 2015 @ 10:22 AM

Shopping Cart Voyeur

I am a self-confessed shopping cart voyeur! I can’t help it - it’s the researcher/customer anthropologist in me.  

After doing this work of observing and studying humans engage in shopping psychographics and the shopping cartbehavior and eliciting the process of how they decide for a living for over 17 years now, I can’t turn this aspect of my brain off even when I am running chores, shopping for groceries, etc. What the cashier is ringing up for the customer in front of you speaks volumes about the shopper. As does a glance at the shopping basket of the person behind you. I engage in a lot of story creation as I wait my turn. The stories may be completely inaccurate, but they are nevertheless interesting (at least in my mind).

  • What is the person’s life situation-single, married, have families, how old are their kids, etc.?
  • Are they buying for a special occasion such as a dinner party?
  • Do the sugary cereals say they don’t care about their sugar intake or just plain don’t know the sugar content and believe they are buying healthy items?
  • Which impulse items at the checkout did they toss in casually and what does that say about them?
  • Did they toss in Prevention, Yoga Times, or the National Inquirer?
  •  What about the wine? Red or white? What varietal? What price range? Red with chicken or fish? Although we have come a long way from this white wine rule, (since Sean Connery’s Bond knew the Robert Shaw character on the train was a Russian spy since he ordered red wine with fish in “From Russia with Love”), what does it say about the person’s dislike for white wine or preference for reds only? Is there some psychographic distinction about people who only drink red? Are their pallets more refined or less refined than those that drink both?

These Saturday afternoon casual musings do bring up a serious point though. How accurate are our official market research observations and explanations for what people buy and why? Does the map accurately represent the territory and if not, how far apart are they? What erroneous decisions by marketers can this lead to? And more importantly, what are then antidotes to this that market research practitioners need to address?

My hypothesis here is that buying behavior has become increasingly complex in a world proliferated with information and instantaneous influences. While researchers recognize this complexity, many of the market research techniques used in the field today are based on simpler textbook purchase decision processes that have not updated for decades. We still invite people to focus groups and ask them to recall and recount the shopping or buying experience and decision. We then relay that information in a stunning PowerPoint to our clients. By the way, I am not saying do not conduct focus groups; they continue to be a valuable consumer research tool. But understand that the old research map does not represent all the aspects of the territory anymore. It’s like a map having a relief map of Washington State stripped of all the relief attributes. Sure, the map has an accurate shape and boundaries and all, but where is Mount Rainer?

What then are the antidotes? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Rethink! The old discussion guide needs a facelift!  Recognize the limits of questions you can ask. The old rule was it’s a good question if the respondent can answer it. The new rule should be: it’s a bad question if the respondent is likely to have omissions in their responses, i.e. it cannot be answered completely even if can be truthfully answered. Advise clients against these types of questions. Misleading research hurts not only your reputation as a researcher, but hurts the industry. 
  1.  Triangulate! The days of relying on primary research data alone for decision making answers are numbered! As companies create and collect more data from myriad sources, research practitioners need to become adept at asking for and using these sources. “If we won’t do it ourselves, it will be done onto us”. Let’s make big data a powerful augmentation for primary research and not a replacement. In a previous post, I introduced the new and improved research triangle-this triangle has three facets-primary data, social data, and big data. 
  1. Enrich! Tools and services are available today like never before and enable us to enrich behavioral data with demographic and psychographic overlays, thereby creating richer data sets to work with. These services allow for customer transactional data to be appended and enriched.
  1. Observe! Practice more Customer Anthropology. Direct in-depth observation and ethnography round out the list with the ability to observe not just product consumption but the total human, a critical component of human understanding. Like Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees, technology tools enable us more than ever before to bear “silent witness” to behaviors, habits and practices.

 

Alan Nazarelli is President and CEO of Silicon Valley Research Group, a global market research and strategy development firm focused on the needs of technology companies.

 

 

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Topics: Customer Anthroplogy, market research insights

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