The appeal of surveys lies in their uselessness. We read the results, raise an eyebrow or yawn, according to taste, and turn the page. And with that, the research has served its purpose. Like the mayfly, the opinion poll lives for just a day and is then forgotten.
No harm is done unless, or until, the people who commissioned the poll attempt to put the findings to some practical use beyond merely attracting ephemeral PR.
So, for instance, when we learn that seven per cent of people in Norway change their underwear only once a week according to a survey conducted by AC Nielsen, we simply allow our lives to move on. The information has no practical value, other perhaps than that our nose might be telling us the person we are sitting next to on the train could be from Stavanger.
Similarly, the news that Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen tops the list of male celebrities who women secretly fancy but pretend not to, according to a new poll by AOL, must be a candidate for the most purposeless finding in all of this sad world.
And when the same researchers announce that nearly three-quarters of Britons have had a fling with someone in the office, what are we supposed to do, bake a cake?
Unfortunately, though, some misguided or deluded folk imagine that there is an alchemy capable of turning the dross of surveys into the gold of practical achievement.
And so it comes to pass that Sainsbury’s, which has fallen on tough times of late, is to introduce plasma screens into its stores to allow customers to see the latest news, sport and weather. No need to ask why. A survey did that.
The idea, we are told, came after customer research revealed that most men tend to drive their wives or girlfriends to the supermarket and then stay in the car listening to the radio during major sports events. If ever there was research pointing to no further action, this was it. I mean, what motive, other than malice or a hatred of men, can there be for disturbing a fellow who, having undertaken the disagreeable task of coming within a stone’s throw of a supermarket, is happily listening to the radio?
The attempt to lure him into the store by promising pictures of the sporting event in which he is interested is misguided on any number of counts. Among them are the fact that the screens are postcard-sized, which is a little on the small side, especially if more than one person is trying to watch; that a supermarket with crowded aisles is unpleasant enough without the added congestion of bored males jostling to look at a tiny picture; and that it’s all a bit of a con in the first place.
The real aim of the screens is, of course, to sell, and to that end they will give information about products, carry promotions and play music. All of which sounds, to my male ear at any rate, a fairly refined version of hell.
Sainsbury’s, however, cannot be faulted for failing to take a coolly scientific view of this proposed innovation. “We trialled television screens above the shopping aisles, but they did not prove popular because they weren’t in customers’ line of sight,” explains a spokesman.
As with the experimental use of “trial” as a verb, which is at best only partially successful, the introduction of screens where no one could see them was an imaginative idea but flawed. It could be counted a success only if its primary purpose was to preserve the status quo ante. Sainsbury’s management, which is nothing like as slow-witted as the people at Tesco would have you believe, spotted this error and resolved to move the screens to eye-level on the edges of shelves, perfectly positioned to allow men looking for the latest Test score to learn all that anyone needs to know, and possibly more, about the fat content of a Hobnob.
And to think that all of this innovation, this technology, this sinew-straining human endeavour was prompted by a survey or, to be precise, countless surveys.
Lorna Connelly, project leader for Sainsbury’s, says: “Customers always indicate in feedback that they want to be enthused and inspired while they shop. This gives them lots of information in a really fun format.”
Beware anyone who tells you that you are about to have real fun; it’s a certain sign that a measure of misery awaits. And who are these customers who repeatedly indicate in feedback (though possibly not in English) that when they walk through the doors of a supermarket it is with hope, and perhaps expectation, of being enthused and inspired?
The most that one may hope for when buying groceries is to complete the task as swiftly as possible and to beat a hasty exit. If you want to be enthused, inspired or spiritually elevated you are better served by a theatre, museum, cathedral or art gallery than by a shop.
Then again, shopping is, for some, a kind of religion and I suppose a supermarket might therefore be likened to a church. But let us not give Sainsbury’s any more ideas. Buying a packet of Hobnobs to the accompaniment of an organ and a choir is a prospect every bit as uninviting as sharing a lift with an earthy Norwegian.