Find out what’s in store

A vast array of promotions compete for consumers’ attention in store. Helen Donald looks at what steps can be taken to discover what will work best

What proportion of buying decisions are made in store? Every expert will quote a different number but one thing that they all agree on is that the figure is high, very high – perhaps as much as 90 per cent. It therefore seems astonishing that so little point-of-purchase (PoP) material gets researched either before or after a campaign.

Martin Kingdon, director general of industry body POPAI, believes that PoP effectiveness can only be maximised if designers understand the shopper’s perspective. He has been stressing the importance of research for as long as he can remember, but admits that it is still not widely used.

Inertia may be one explanation, with many clients refusing to consider research because they have never used it in the past but – and arguably worse – Kingdon thinks that many companies are simply unwilling to commit time and money to proper evaluation.

“Many people believe that they know their brand and their customer better than anyone else and so do not need research to determine what PoP will work best,” he says. “Yet very often, none of the brand team is in the target market so they are completely unqualified to be making those sorts of decisions.” In addition, Kingdon thinks that clients are too easily swayed by aesthetics: “Clients like things to look nice even though that almost certainly has no bearing on whether the material works or not. If the shopper can not identify with it then it is completely wasted.”

Even when clients do conduct research, they may look at the wrong things, maintains Kingdon. “They tend to be more concerned with testing functionality and retailer acceptability, both of which are important, but they forget the person who is actually going to buy it or not,” he says.

Sales force

It’s often unclear how effective a particular PoP activity is until the sales figures come in, so brand owners and retailers tend to rely on these, rather than research, for feedback. Kingdon thinks that this is a very dangerous approach: “In many environments, you cannot use sales as the sole measure of success. PoP’s job is to stimulate people by putting a product into their repertoire. If the product itself is flawed in any way, for example if it is simply not relevant to the consumer or too expensive, then it won’t sell even if the PoP has done its job perfectly.”

Caroline Wilde, managing director of retail marketing consultancy RMP, goes a step further. “Clients often forget that PoP never appears in isolation but is always fighting against a myriad of competing messages. Putting things into a mock shop in head office cannot tell you anything.”

A typical large supermarket in the UK stocks about 30,000 product lines in 20,000 square feet with gondolas, signs, promotions, price tickets and, at peak periods, 200 to 300 customers to navigate around, all creating a vast array of visual stimuli for consumers to cope with. For this reason, Wilde, in common with most other suppliers, believes that the only useful way to evaluate PoP is in a live environment – the store shelf itself – yet most companies, if they do any shopper research at all, still fall back on focus groups.

Tony Nunan, marketing director at design and research company Visuality, also thinks that focus groups are not suited to evaluating PoP: “They are incapable of predicting what will work. We know that people will say one thing in research and do something totally different in practice. That is particularly true of a medium such as PoP, where there are so many visual stimuli in a genuine store environment,” he says.

Kingdon grudgingly agrees with this but believes that some research is better than none. To encourage better use of research, POPAI has been doing its own testing for the past five years and has gradually built up a broad range of data from different displays and environments.

In addition, Kingdon is interested in launching a bespoke testing facility which would allow clients to research cost effectively. “Too many people are still unaware of the research options available in spite of the many companies offering good research services. We may have a better chance of raising awareness and persuading clients to use research if we launch it ourselves,” he says.

Improved delivery

The problem with any research into PoP, says Andrew Aylett, planning director at below-the-line agency Tarantula, is that insight is of limited value without support from retailers: “There are only so many ways you can say ‘three for the price of two’. If brands continue to be restricted to purely rational value propositions, there will be even more need for detailed planning and creative use of all available store media to communicate a more emotional brand message,” he says.

“We need to look in detail at how consumers make their buying decisions, the factors they consider and the influence of other variables, such as fixture layout and messaging. The techniques that enable us to do this have been around for some time, but what is changing is the way in which these are being brought together to provide insight that is quantifiable and delivers a tangible return on investment.”

John Cox, director of Sure Consultancy and university lecturer on shopper psychology, is one of Europe’s leading experts on PoP. He is concerned that badly designed PoP material can be harmful. Research is vital if that is to be avoided: “More can definitely be less and vice versa,” he says. “Poor PoP can overload consumers with information, leading ultimately to a lock-out where the brain blanks out everything and all opportunity to communicate is lost.”

The only way to test whether this is happening, says Cox, is in the store itself using filmed observation and interviews with trained psychologists. Accompanied shopping and eye movement trackers, once popular, are now recognised as being too artificial while interviewing shoppers once they have made their purchase is also regarded as very unreliable. He claims that filming what people actually do is the most useful source of information.

Cox thinks that brand owners may have been put off observational research in the past because it tended to be very detailed and, consequently, quite expensive. “Brand owners are starting to appreciate that you don’t have to research down to the level of individual stock-keeping units and that even general information about how a category is shopped can be invaluable,” he says.

Visuality has been one of the pioneers of this approach with its research tool Snapshot. “Much in-store research has been quite unwieldy,” says Nunan. “The research we do is qualitative rather than quantitative, so we can’t pretend that it is statistically significant. However, it costs no more than running four focus groups and provides considerably more useful insights.”

The right environment

Snapshot tests both whether shoppers recognise PoP and secondly whether they understand it. “Recognition happens at a very subliminal level and can only be observed in the right context: the store,” says Nunan. “Focus groups just can’t measure that.”

But concerns linger about the ethics of secret filming even though consumers are always advised that cameras are in place. Experts think these fears are unfounded nowadays.

Kesslers International, the largest PoP designer and manufacturer in Europe, did its own research into what consumers think about PoP last year and was astonished to find widespread acceptance of filming. Ninety-three per cent of the 500 people interviewed claimed that they were happy for PoP units to carry hidden cameras. According to deputy chairman Charles Kessler, “People are increasingly prepared to give up their privacy because they understand the benefits. CCTV cameras are widely used everywhere now and consumers are so used to them that in-store cameras are also no longer regarded as intrusive.”

Kessler thinks that research should be a continuous activity and not just used to test concepts. “Many decisions end up being made at great speed against a tight launch deadline so it’s vital to continue research post-launch. Research should be ongoing.”

PoP’s sweet harmony

But even Kessler admits that, sometimes, you just can’t keep a good idea down. Kessler International’s relaunch of Masterfoods’ bagged sweets in open display units was so successful that the test roll-out was abandoned in favour of a national launch when it became clear that sales were going through the roof. No further research was needed to tell them that they had got the formula right.

In the future, technology such as radio frequency identification, where microchips placed in displays track products from the warehouse to consumers home may bring even greater research benefits.

POPAI USA has used the technology to test the effect of display placement on sales and claims very positive results. RFID use won’t become more widespread until retailers adopt the technology to run it but in time we might be able to prove once and for all just how many buying decisions really are made in store.

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