‘Shopper insights’ and the value of holistic research

One of the growth areas of market research in recent years has been in the area of “shopper insights”.  It’s an area I’m interested in and believe can claim some expertise in, but it’s also an area where I think we risk misleading clients by pretending the issues are unique to a certain group of consumers (in this case FMCG/CPG shoppers) or can be solved by focus on a certain aspect of the purchase process (e.g. “point of sale”). Shopper insights as a focus area is indicative of  a  pressing issue in research, where clients have become dissatisfied with “generalised” research reports and seek ever more specific and granular information. This makes research that promises to reveal a “moment of truth” or “nano-second of purchase” very attractive.

Nothing wrong with more focus on key points like that, and it can certainly be helpful in producing actionable research.

But we should be aware that this is an artificial construction. The reality is that these “aha moments” for consumers are seldom as decisive and isolated from other influences as it appears on the surface.

Point of sale research, like any other “deep-dive” consumer study, needs to be taken back and integrated with wider views of how consumers really operate if it is to generate real value. Only then can clients sensibly judge how to balance sales and marketing budgets and build marketing systems that properly integrate tactical and strategic initiatives.

Over time I think that the distinction between shopper insight and more general consumer research will fade. This will be driven because increasingly sophisticated research on consumer decision making reveals that the “moment of truth” in-store can be decomposed into a series of interacting influences that may come together in-store, but which are not really just about that single moment when purchase happens. That point is just the last page of the novel, and if we want to understand where the real moment of change happened, we’d better read the whole story. We need to think in terms of a series of related tipping points in other words.

The first challenge in doing this this is to start thinking about “tool-kits” of research methods. As an example, in my time at Nielsen we had some success identifying some of the tipping points that led to consumer behaviour in-store, and created a series of diagnostic tools that integrated household panel, retail, qualitative, and survey data to try and show where the key opportunity areas lay for the marketer (e.g. for some segments, trying to change minds in-store was almost a waste of time, for others quite minor tweaks to displays or packs could have huge impact).

You could, I believe, get an equally interesting  picture (but from a different perspective) by combining some of the so-called “new MR” tools (customer research communities, online quali, and social media analytics, for instance). What I’m getting at here is not the exact methods, but the need to triangulate to generate useful insights.

Interestingly, one of the things I’ve been working on in this area has been how we segment consumers by the mental processes they use to make decisions. As neuro-science advances and at the same time, micro-segmentation becomes more important, we need to more accurately understand how people approach the mental task of shopping – and an holistic approach to this will become more and more vital in my view.

But, working on all this over the years has shown me that coming up with the research design or working out how to integrate diverse types of data is not the major issue in doing outstanding shopper research. The real issue is finding the people skills (and perhaps the willpower and budget) to pull it all together. This, in turn, relates to where such research sits in the client and research supplier organisations. Someone has to buy into utilising fairly senior and widely experienced brain power to pull the synergies out of the various methods and data-sets – a client may need to look at a unified programme of research instead of focusing on the latest MR fad in the hope of getting a silver bullet insight.

We need, I believe, to  invest time and resource in people and programmes that are capable of putting the jigsaw of research together. It is superficially attractive to treat shopper research as about answering one or two “simple questions”. And, yes it is harder and more challenging to think of consumer questions in terms of solving a giant puzzle. But as one of my Political Science lecturers once told me when, as a young man, I presented an essay solving most world problems in 3,000 words: “Alastair, there’s a simple answer to every question – and it’s usually wrong!”




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