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Cellular Levels
Digital tools offer new clues into shopper behavior.

Shoppers have long put effort into researching high-involvement and expensive purchases like cars and electronics before heading to the store. Suddenly, because of technology, it is now also worth the “effort” to research toothpaste, canned tomatoes and laundry detergent.

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than one-fifth of shoppers research food and beverages online, nearly one-third research pet products and 39 percent research baby products. Almost two-thirds (62%) say they search for deals online before at least half of their shopping trips.

Ryan Partnership’s multi-year study of digital shopping confirms the widespread — and still growing — use of digital tools to gather information, select retailers and make brand decisions well before the shopper ever sees a product on the shelf. In fact, this past month, 58 percent of the 5,000 shoppers in our survey told us they are more likely than a year ago to “typically” decide what they want before visiting a store. To do this, their usage of all kinds of digital shopping tools is growing.

The increased availability of information on mobile devices has been a strong driver in the growth of digital tool adoption for shopping — the tools are simply more useful when they are available whenever and wherever people need them. Shoppers in our study overwhelmingly reported that they use these tools before they get to the store shelf. In many cases this pre-store activity is having an impact on the decisions they make about where they shop, not just what they buy.

Shoppers also report using mobile digital tools more and more while at the store as an adjunct to the information they find in the store. These tools are having a real impact on people’s in-store shopping behavior, as well: Respondents report that they make unplanned purchases and buy new products and brands as a result of the information digital mobile tools provide for them.

What does all this mean for shopper-insights professionals? When people use these shopping tools, they generate a trail of data that is employed routinely by web-analytics teams to optimize brands’ and retailers’ websites and other digital assets. However, it can also be used for other means — in particular, understanding in broader terms how people shop for various categories and brands, how they shop in different retail channels and banners, and some of the things that are motivating those behaviors.

digital toolsThere has been heated debate in our field in recent years about the appropriateness of using “social market research” in place of traditional quantitative and qualitative shopper research techniques. In fact, the debate is something of a red herring. It would be foolish to ignore this new source of data that, when approached knowledgeably and responsibly, can provide insights we may not be able to gather any other way. It is also possible to incorporate this information into our insight-generation process without abandoning more direct types of shopper research.

The positives of using social research platforms for shopper insights are that they are quite easy to access, reasonably priced, and fast (i.e., we can get information in real time) compared to many traditional research tools. They also have the advantage that they provide information that is not biased by shoppers’ ability or willingness to recall or recount their activities — and this is a major positive.

The key negative is that it can involve quite a bit of persistence, creativity and imagination to mine social data to glean broader insights about the overall shopping experience. As a result, there is the possibility of misinterpretation, and the dollar savings can be offset to varying degrees by the time investment.

We find that using social research techniques to begin our investigation of shopper behaviors and motivations is a great way to maximize the positive and minimize the negative. The ability to document behavior that shoppers may not have been able or willing to tell us is a strong reason to take a look at what can be learned from social research platforms.

After the initial exploration, we often have questions or hypotheses about shoppers that we would not have generated on our own. That is the time to turn to some of the more traditional approaches and explore these issues further. In general, the insights we can gather from social research platforms are very behavioral. Any insights we generate about shopper motivations —or the why behind the what — probably need to be confirmed with additional direct shopper research (surveys, intercepts, in-store monitoring, etc.).

Learning from Digital/Social Tools

Social listening and web analytics tools can help shed at least some light on a variety of marketing issues — from positioning to new product development to effective merchandising and pricing. Numerous examples are described in the literature that relate to topics dear to most shopper marketers’ hearts, so I’ve chosen a couple to provide some thought-starters. One example uses search-behavior analytics and another uses social listening.

What is important to people shopping for my category? Search behavior tools (such as Google Insights for Search) can be used to understand how people think about the category as a whole and how they start their shopping process for it. We can apply that information to make sure we are delivering on those factors in the store.

digital toolsFor instance, an investigation of search activity in hair care reveals that people spend a lot of time searching for ways to recreate celebrity hairstyles. Clearly, that has implications for where a hair-care brand would want to place internet advertising and what kinds of videos it might post on YouTube or its own website.

However, it also provides a great starting point for developing in-store activity and merchandising concepts. These could include hair styling tips/booklets in-store (featuring celebrities and their signature looks) celebrities on packaging and in-store signage, and changes in adjacencies based on tools and products required to achieve certain styles.

Where are people shopping for my category and how is that changing? In the book, Listen First!, Stephen Rappaport shares a case study involving Kraft’s social-listening tools. One key insight Kraft (in conjunction with its social-listening partner Cymfony) discovered was that “shoppers experienced a resurgent interest in home gardens and seasonal eating as a way to save money … eat more healthfully … and support local farmers’ markets.”

Using that information to infer that shoppers were likely moving some of their grocery store dollars to farmers’ markets, Kraft responded by “partnering with retailers to create merchandising displays that borrow themes from farmers’ markets and create community supported agriculture-like boxes of complementary items in stores,” thereby helping their customers keep more of those transactions in the store.

I’m sure you have your own set of questions about shopping behavior and motivations in your category and I challenge you to think about how you could answer them by tapping into the information available as a result of this new way of shopping. All of this information, gathered online, can help point us in the direction of the right messages to deliver to shoppers at the right point in time through the right media channels — including inside the store.

In most organizations — whether manufacturers, retailers or agencies — the relationship with social media is not part of the insights or market research function. Instead, the responsibility for tapping into the measurement tools generally lies with the teams that develop digital and social media strategies and plans. They use the data to test audience reaction to various online messages and activities. Which banner ad is driving more people to the website? Which vacation spot photo on our site is getting more people to book a flight? Which recipes are getting people to navigate around the site and download coupons for our brand?

You want to use the same data, but for different purposes. This is the excuse you’ve been looking for to get out of your office and make new friends with the web analytics or customer-intelligence folks. Have lunch with them and talk about the kinds of things you’d like to learn about your shoppers. Chances are they’ll be excited to think about their tools in a slightly different way and to help you get started accessing the right data.

In addition, it’s critical to have this team work with you so that any digital activity you launch is set up to collect data that will help you gather the shopper insights you need. Follow up by talking with whichever social-listening platform suppliers your organization uses. Chances are these platforms are already in use somewhere in the organization. So, speak with those experts if you have concerns about the value and relevance of this kind of information and challenge them to look at their data from your perspective.

If we truly want to be the voice of the shopper within our organizations, it’s important to listen to that voice whenever and wherever we reasonably can. As trained professionals, it is also up to us to bring that training to bear on these new techniques to improve the quality of data they provide and to interpret them responsibly. After that, it’s up to you where your imagination and intellect take you.

is svp of research and insights at Ryan Partnership, where she helps brands and retailers across a wide range of categories use research tools to gain a deeper understanding of their consumers and shoppers. Email:

MAY / JUNE 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home