No one, it seems, can say too much about the evolving art of Website design, with companies continually monitoring consumer reaction to their pages. And yet point of purchase (POP), which performs many of the same functions in the non-virtual world, has never been accorded the same interest. In particular, many clients have rarely invested in significant research into the effectiveness of POP displays.
This state of affairs is all the more surprising given the 70 per cent of purchasing decisions which, taking all non-planned elements into account, have been estimated to be taken at point of sale.
Although product category and store environment will influence the final POP solution, the question of what type of display works best seems to have remained a surprisingly inexact science considering how much is at stake.
Champions of electronic media might argue that any comparison with the Web is not entirely justified; after all, the new technology makes it inherently easy to track users’ movements. In comparison, however, researching consumer behaviour in a retail environment is a costly and time-consuming exercise. And Websites are being designed to do more than simply prompt sales of a product.
But, beyond driving impulse sales, strong POP material can perform a more lasting service to a brand, says Darren Savage, head of planning at Coutts Consumer Analysis. Coutts has found that clients – including Ford, Kraft Jacob Suchard and L’Oreal – are increasingly involving the POP agency when drawing up brand strategy.
“Brand owners are realising that POP is not just about shifting more units, but it can also contribute to strengthening brand perceptions and attitudes,” explains Savage.
Coutts believes it is the only POP agency in the industry carrying out campaign and strategic planning in a way that mirrors adver- tising agency practice.
Like some other POP agencies and clients, Coutts is combining electronic monitoring of displays with focus groups and other types of consumer research to help establish the best solution for a given product.
In the case of units designed for Coty Sensiq, the brief for Coutts was to encourage cross-selling by optimising the way that different cosmetics were grouped. In this instance, initial research involved interviewing and filming members of the target market applying make-up. It provided insights into the order in which they applied dif ferent products, and the quantities they used.
Increasingly, it seems, the bigger brands attempt to create a shop-within-a-shop environment which will insulate their appeal from the wider retail environment, over which the brand owner has no control. This was the case with Coty, where research found that shoppers were more likely to buy products in an upmarket micro-environment inside outlets such as budget stores. Of course, different retailers will allow varying degrees of brand prominence and autonomy.
Before the Coty design was completed, different prototypes were tested in store. This helped to determine which signage was the most effective. “The prototypes were all filmed in situ, and exit polls were conducted to add qualitative data to the analysis,” Savage explains.
Apart from interview-based research, electronic gadgetry is also providing its share of data on consumer behaviour, from simple customer counting to proximity det- ection and video tracking. Coutts uses these “In-store Audit” technologies, provided by Solution Products Systems, to complement its own analytical skills.
Independent in-store marketing consultant John Cox believes that, with retail space having doubled over the past 15 years and the Internet now increasing fragmentation still further, brand owners are having to redouble their efforts to understand exactly what triggers consumer interest. “There has not been that much research in this area, and it’s coming quite late in the day,” he says.
Cox attaches great value to electronic surveillance techniques in POP research. “You’re only going to get a certain amount of useful data from focus groups or pre- and post-shopping questionnaires,” he says. “Shopping is really about emotion, and when people rationalise the experience they may not even be aware how much they were enjoying themselves or how much time they were spending in front of a fixture.”
Cox, who is conducting academic research into consumer psychology, believes brands could benefit from research into what prompts impulses such as treating or gifting. Similarly, the superficially slight shift from browsing to searching can make the difference between a pleasurable experience and a stressful one, he says.
However, not all agencies are finding clients receptive to a more empirical approach to POP. “I have been championing the use of research for a long time,” says Richard Ash, director at specialist agency RMD. “But unlike above-the-line campaigns or packaging, which use all sorts of testing and focus groups, in POP this is the exception rather than the norm.”
In RMD’s experience, even major brand owners tend to view sales units and signage as media which effectively test themselves. “It is quite easy to monitor the extent to which POP units are driving sales. So instead of spending £10,000 on research, companies would rather invest in more units from the outset,” Ash explains.
While that may be the case, for brands in particularly competitive and fast-moving sectors, maximising sales from the launch date through intensive pre-launch research can be of vital importance. Like the best research in any field, results should not merely confirm, but challenge the basic assumptions of the design brief. This was the case with video aisle monitoring of consumer interaction carried out with a major UK retailer, says Ash.
Clients may be more open to the idea of research if they are targeting a market with specific needs, perceptions or patterns of behaviour – notably children. RMD carried out research into the seven-to-11 age group for a product sold through supermarkets. Even though the client and the agency had narrowed the design down from three or four options, this focus group research prompted them to include additional elements in the final display.
In some cases, POP agencies and research organisations have set up partnerships that go beyond ad hoc cooperation. A year ago, Research International launched a joint pre- and post-design research programme with POP specialist Oakley Young. Since then, two or three major organisations are said to have taken it up.
The combined service starts with an assessment of consumer behaviour in store and continues with testing of consumer reactions to initial design concepts. Finally, research establishes the likely rise in sales that would result from the implementation of the new POP display compared with the old. This can help refine the design, but also provide valuable stock control information, says Oakley Young.
As with Coutts’ work for Coty, Oakley Young created a shop-within-a-shop for Motorola’s phone range. “The brand wanted to appeal to the female shopper,” says Oakley Young business development manager Diane Batty. “Analysis and research found that curves rather than sharp, straight edges should be used, along with warmer colours.”
While non-integrated projects will take less time, a full research and design programme may last for up to six months, estimates Danielle Pinnington, deputy managing director of Research International’s consumer division. Conse- quently, these tend to be used by the top one or two brands in a given category for major standalone fixtures, where long-term planning is seen as insurance against potentially costly mistakes.
Exit interviews and accompanied shops are used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a fixture, and Pinnington recommends the inclusion of quantitative along with qualitative research in these cases. Videoing can be used, she says, but tends to simply replicate interview results, and can be expensive.
Work on POP began as an extension of category management research. “When we first started talking to clients about this 18 months ago, we got the impression that it was not at the top of their agenda,” says Pinnington. Since then, she says, the value of careful planning and research in a competitive and promotion-oriented point- of-sale environment has started to filter through.
With electronic techniques available for monitoring consumer behaviour, and the development of inter- view-based research in and outside the retail environment, some brand owners are realising they have the tools to take the guesswork out of POP effectiveness. But, then again, until there is clear evidence of the value of this type of research, many will continue to channel their marketing spend elsewhere.