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Each month, American Demographics covers the trends that help businesses gain a better understanding of swiftly changing consumer markets. This month, we cover similar territory, but from a different perspective: through the lens of qualitative research.

In our cover story, “The New Science of Focus Groups,� on page 29, Editor-at-Large Alison Stein Wellner explains that today's focus groups have moved well beyond the conference room and the one-way mirror. Wellner talks with researchers who are revolutionizing the world of qualitative research by developing new techniques that glean fresh insights into consumer attitudes and behavior. Says Wellner: “These researchers are doing everything from conducting one-on-interviews to hosting parties to get a better understanding of how consumers really feel about a particular product. They're even borrowing a few tricks from ethnography, segmentation and cognitive science — anything that will make what consumers say even more revealing.�

Why are focus groups so important? “A well-moderated focus group can bring value to a company,� says Wellner. In fact, businesses rarely rely exclusively on quantitative research to make weighty marketing decisions. Instead, they often turn to qualitative research, spending more than $1 billion a year to gain a deeper understanding of how consumers feel and think about a product or service.

Our second feature story this month reveals the kind of deeper insight into consumers — and consumer behavior — qualitative research can give us. In “America Untethered,� on page 34, Contributing Editor Hassan Fattah presents four ethnographic studies that examine the impact of wireless communication on our social behavior. In analyzing the study results, Fattah discovered that cell phones have done more than just create noise pollution: They have forced a redefinition of basic etiquette, and perhaps even changed our fundamental relationship to time. Writes Fattah: “Ethnographers and social scientists had long wondered what the portability of cell phones would engender, but they didn't have much data to go by. Until recently, most studies about wireless phones focused on design and technology issues. The latest ethnographic studies, however, have yielded significant clues. Wireless communication is beginning to have a notable impact on our social behavior — one that could have a long-lasting effect on our society.�

According to the research, Americans and Europeans are becoming more independent and spontaneous. And though they're also often arriving late to appointments, at least they're calling to say they're on their way. More than half of all Americans, some 150 million people, now carry cell phones, creating a $94 billion industry that's growing 15 percent a year. As cell phones become ubiquitous, expect more excuses for tardiness — but less guilt.

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