Meet You in Aisle Three

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It's a bright winter morning in Buffalo and Top's Supermarket on Erie Road is bustling. Customers snake through the aisles, some stopping to look at special displays while others dart by, en route to the fastest checkout lane. Over in the health and beauty aids section, Jerilyn Schueler waits. A field interviewer for market research firm Elrick & Lavidge, Schueler is scouting for customers buying a packaged good whose name the maker didn't want disclosed in this article. The manufacturer wants to know why people buy its brand-or the competition's. Is it the price? The packaging? Promotional displays? Unfortunately, there's not much aisle traffic, so Schueler keeps herself busy arranging shelves and assisting shoppers. Then she notices a young mother dropping the right item into her cart. Smith jumps to action, introducing herself and asking the woman if she has time to answer a few questions. The shopper agrees, perhaps swayed by the crisp $5 bill she'll earn. Schueler breathes a quiet sigh of relief and begins the interview.

Welcome to the frontlines of in-store market research. Reaching beyond focus groups and phone surveys, in-store research corners consumers right as they reach for the product on the shelf. It lets consumers tell you, on the spot, what they think of your product-for better or for worse. "The closer you can take the research to the point of decision, whether it's at the store shelf or in the pantry, the more actionable it is," says Karen Snepp, vice president of consumer insights at Frito-Lay. Various companies, including Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Starbuck's, McDonald's and Walgreen's, conduct in-store studies today, and there may be plenty more to come: a workshop about the methodology at the Advertising Research Foundation's annual conference last month drew an impressive crowd.

What's driving the interest? The onset of category management is one factor, as well as a miserable 90-percent failure rate for new products. Fierce competition for market share-and, as a result, those lucrative eye-level shelves-has also prompted companies to get into stores and talk to people.

In-store research can often determine the future of a new product. A few years ago, Quaker State asked Elrick & Lavidge to investigate the viability of a new product for its Slick 50 engine-treatment brand. The study was conducted in three locations-Dallas, Miami, and Tulsa -all with various levels of Slick 50 sales. Since Quaker State couldn't advertise the product because it was still in top-secret development, Elrick & Lavidge conducted phone surveys in the three markets to identify category users. Those consumers, mostly young men, were then offered a financial incentive to participate in the study at their local store.

At the store, they were shown the Slick 50 product on the shelf and at end-of-aisle displays. Field reps peppered them with questions: Did they like the package design? Could it be improved? Was it a product they would buy? Purchase likelihood was key for Quaker State to understand. "You can project that data into future market share and trial usage," says Bob Cohen, former executive vice president of the innovations center at Quaker State and now a new-products consultant. "It's the best information you can have to evaluate whether or not to go forward and invest more money." While results from the study showed promise, Cohen says, the merger of Quaker State and Pennzoil last year has squelched further development of the product for now.

We already know something about how people shop. A study last year by Frito-Lay found that the average shopper spends only 21 minutes buying groceries and covers only 23 percent of the store. People with shopping lists don't necessarily stick to them either. Research by marketing professors Jeffrey Inman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Russell Winer of the University of California at Berkeley found that list-makers are just as likely to make spontaneous purchases as those without them. Overall, the professors found that 59 percent of all supermarket purchases are unplanned. Who is making last-minute decisions? Bigger households, larger shopping parties, households with higher incomes, and women.

In-store research extends beyond these general shopping habits and observes consumer interaction with a particular brand or category. A handful of market research firms conduct in-store studies today, including top players like Meyers Research Center in New York, Sorensen Associates in Portland, Oregon, and Elrick & Lavidge in Atlanta. Projects vary from client to client, says Mike Howatt, vice president of behaviorial research at Elrick & Lavidge's Chicago office. One company might study how Hispanic shoppers rate a new product, while another may measure the effectiveness of its in-store advertising.

Point-of-sale advertising is a $13 billion industry, according to the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute, so it makes sense that companies study how well their investments are working. Howatt recalls one maker of cough and cold medicine that wanted to see if store displays explaining its products boosted sales. Field reps canvassed stores in various cities to find out. Their discovery? People who purchased medicine felt so lousy that they just wanted to buy something and get out. The manufacturer's displays had little, if any, effect on their purchasing decision. Perhaps not what the client wanted to hear, but that's part of the learning process, Howatt says.

Don't expect in-store research to tell you everything. Experts agree that the methodology should complement, not replace, other market research like focus groups and transaction-data analysis. For now, though, that shopper in aisle three might have something interesting to tell you.

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