Lead them down the aisle

Understanding the behaviour of shoppers, noting how they think and picking out the things that grab their attention is a key challenge for marketers in the cluttered retail arena. By Alicia Clegg

How companies use language reveals a great deal about the way they think. A look at the words and phrases that appear most often in the appointments pages of Marketing Week confirms, as you might expect, that the majority of marketers spend a lot of time thinking about customers and consumers. Although the numbers are growing, only a minority appear to give much thought to shoppers.

This difference in emphasis involves more than semantics. In recent decades, brand owners have invested time and money in building up their knowledge about how people consume both media communications and the products that marketing promotes.

As question marks hang over the effectiveness of traditional advertising methods, businesses are looking for new ways to boost sales. In particular, brand owners are starting to take a much closer look at how people shop and how factors such as retail layouts, merchandising and the opinion of sales staff affect the behaviour of shoppers and the choices they make.

Pinpoint the context

To increase sales and profits, retail offers and displays need to target first the people who are most likely to switch brands or to buy more goods in response to a sales promotion. The starting point is to identify the different types of consumers who are buying from your category, and the context in which they are purchasing – are they topping up with products on the way home from work, slipping out during the lunch hour, or doing a once-a-week shop?

Jamie Rayner, research director at ID Magasin, illustrates why it is so important for brand owners to acquire this extra level of detail. “A lady with a list which includes her husband’s favourite beer has already made up her mind about what brand she is going to buy; a group of lads who drop in for some cans on the way to a party are probably still undecided,” he says. Since the two types of shopper are in different frames of mind, it is unlikely that a single promotion will be effective for both. The brand’s best option, he suggests, is to angle its in-store marketing directly at the group that offers the best prospect for stimulating sales.

Finding a tone of voice and presentational style to appeal to what Rayner terms the “core shopper missions” is only the beginning. As well as striking the right note, communications need to be in a place where shoppers have the time and the inclination to stop and take notice. This requires brands to become experts in the dynamics of shopping.

A second pair of eyes

Getting consumers to recall the intricacies of what they did, or saw, has always been a problem. With retail, however, the normal challenges of research are made worse by the talent that people have for shopping on auto-pilot. This phenomenon – essentially a coping mechanism that allows people to remain focused in the face of potentially overwhelming distractions – has practical consequences for marketers.

When we enter a shop, says Rayner, our mental filters kick in, blanking out 99 per cent of the “visual noise” that assails us and making us forget the trivial. But what is crucial to marketers are the prompts and cues that influence us to turn right instead of left, or maybe pause by a display.

In recognition of these problems, retail researchers often reject methods that rely on recall in favour of accompanied expeditions, where shoppers are interviewed in real time. However, accompanied shopping presents difficulties of its own. The main problem is obvious/ when we know that our every move is being scrutinised, we begin to behave differently.

To make it easier for people to forget that they are being watched, retailers and brand owners have begun to experiment with less intrusive methods of observation, such as filming shoppers on CCTV, followed by interviews. Another technology-assisted method is where shoppers are given glasses containing high-resolution cameras that record what the wearer looks at and for how long.

But do these technically elaborate techniques deliver sales improvements that match up to their costs?

RMS Instore chairman Guy Vaughan argues that they do and claims the objectivity of filmed research “turns the store into a measured [advertising] medium on a par with print and TV”. As an illustration of what he means, Vaughan cites a project for Flora Pro.activ which wanted to present its entire range of yoghurts, milks and spreads in a mobile chiller unit, thereby making the brand more visible to health-conscious consumers.

To establish the best location for the unit, the company ran a comparative test in two groups of stores and recorded consumers’ reactions. In the first group, the unit was placed next to the bread fixture; in the second, alongside breakfast goods.

The camera footage revealed that the bread site gave the brand more exposure and lifted its sales by 27 per cent. Placing Pro.activ with breakfast foods also increased sales, but only by 16 per cent. “The benefit of this approach is that it allows companies to pinpoint the traffic hot-spots in stores and quantify their value in terms of [advertising] opportunities to see,” says Vaughan.

Watch for basic instincts

With or without the help of technology, there is no doubt that studying what shoppers get up to in stores can be an eye-opening experience. A good example of a need visibly crying out for a solution is the shopper’s desire to sample products before buying.

IDEO creative director Mat Hunter says: “Sampling is an interesting challenge because it’s not afforded well. If you watch people buying shampoos, you see them pulling off the caps from bottles to sniff the contents, often with another couple of products clutched under their arm.”

Tattoo Marketing planner and consultant Simon Sholl agrees. In their concern to minimise costs, he maintains that brand owners have forgotten about our instinct to smell, taste and touch goods before buying. “There have been some interesting innovations, such as scratch-and-sniff panels on packs,” he says. But, he adds: “Packaging and in-store displays generally do little to engage people’s senses.”

For brand owners, the challenge of understanding shopper behaviour is complicated by having to work through the retailer; firstly for permission to do research on store premises, and then to put what has been learned into action.

This dependency of brands on stores has the makings of an uneasy relationship, which can easily degenerate into a display of corporate arm wrestling.

Advertising agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy joint head of planning Giles Hedger views the proliferation of self-standing, branded displays as a symptom of this power struggle. “A lot of in-store marketing is about brand owners pushing to recover some control over their brands from retailers,” he says.

Taken to extremes, attention-grabbing tactics become self-defeating, producing cluttered and confusing shop floors that do nothing to stimulate long-term sales. It is for this reason that the more far-sighted brands are involving retailers in their research and developing point-of-purchase strategies to expand the overall market, rather than simply cannibalising their competitors’ sales. Rayner cites Unilever, which makes a point of inviting retailers to research workshops where they discuss the needs of the product categories in which its brands sit.

Shop floor clues

The trend towards collaboration has given a new lease of life to some veteran techniques. Mystery shopping is a case in point. Traditionally used by brand owners to check that retailers are honouring agreements over merchandising, the approach is increasingly being used to uncover areas where brand owners could do more to support retail staff.

Jemma Harris is channel and operator marketing manager of Microsoft UK’s mobile and embedded division, and a spokesperson for the British Market Research Association. She says that retailers are the “interface” between brands and the public. “It’s essential for us to discover what retail staff know about our technologies and whether we need to provide better education. Ultimately, we depend on store people’s knowledge to sell our products to customers.”

But what about researching the opinions, as opposed to the knowledge, of sale staff? Hedger believes brands that focus narrowly on the knowledge and performance of retail staff are neglecting another element in the mix – how sales staff rate the brands that they sell.

“Businesses can learn a huge amount by talking to retail staff about the brands they find most interesting, and the things that would make their jobs more satisfying,” says Hedger. “The trick is to find ways of engaging sales people and consumers in one go, for example by designing packaging that makes it easy and rewarding for staff to demonstrate a product’s features.”

Building successful brands involves more than clever advertising. How products are displayed and promoted, and where they are positioned on shelves, are all factors that influence the purchases shoppers make. However, without the backing of stores, there is a limit to what even the best-informed manufacturers can achieve for their brands. As they develop their retail strategies, brand owners may find that understanding the psychology of shop staff is as important as studying the behaviour of shoppers.

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