Retailers are making breakthroughs in understanding their customers’ minds. Here is what they know about you
Oh, that’s what I want!
Researchers are now exploring these mechanisms by observing the brain at work. One of the most promising techniques is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses a large scanner to detect changes in the blood flow in parts of the brain that correspond to increases or decreases in mental activity. People lying inside the scanners are shown different products or brands and then asked questions about them. What they say is compared with what they are thinking by looking at cognitive or emotional activity. The idea is that if, say, a part of the brain that is associated with pleasure lights up, then the product could be a winner. This is immensely valuable information because eight out of ten new consumer products usually fail, despite test marketing on people who say they would buy the item—but whose subconscious may have been thinking something different.
“We are just at the frontier of the subconscious,” says Eric Spangenberg, dean of the College of Business at Washington State University and an expert on the subtleties of marketing. “We know it’s there, we know there are responses and we know it is significant.” But companies commissioning such studies keep the results secret for commercial reasons. This makes Dr Spangenberg sure of one thing: “What I think I know, they probably know way more.”
We are just at the frontier of the subconscious
Retailers and producers talk a lot about the “moment of truth”. This is not a philosophical notion, but the point when people standing in the aisle decide what to buy and reach to get it. The Basingstoke store illustrates some of the ways used to get shoppers’ hands to wobble in the direction of a particular product. At the instant coffee selection, for example, branded products from the big producers are arranged at eye-level while cheaper ones are lower down, along with the supermarket’s own-label products.
Often head offices will send out elaborate plans of where everything has to be placed; Albertsons, a big American supermarket chain, calls these a “plan-a-gram”. Spot-checks are carried out to make sure instructions are followed to the letter. The reason for this strictness is that big retailers demand “slotting fees” to put suppliers’ goods on their shelves, and these vary according to which positions are considered to be prime space.
But shelf-positioning is fiercely fought over, not just by those trying to sell goods, but also by those arguing over how best to manipulate shoppers. Never mind all the academic papers written on how best to stack shelves, retailers have their own views. While many stores reckon eye-level is the top spot, some think a little higher is better. Others charge more for goods placed on “end caps”—displays at the end of the aisles which they reckon to have the greatest visibility (although some experts say it all depends on the direction in which people gyrate around a store—and opinion on that is also divided). To be on the right-hand-side of an eye-level selection is often considered the very best place, because most people are right-handed and most people’s eyes drift rightwards. Some supermarkets reserve that for their own-label “premium” goods.
Technology is making the process of monitoring shopper behavior easier—which is why the security cameras in a store may be doing a lot more than simply watching out for theft. Rajeev Sharma, of Pennsylvania State University, founded a company called VideoMining to automate the process. It uses image-recognition software to scan the pictures from security cameras of shoppers while they are making their selections. It is capable of looking at the actions of hundreds of thousands of people. It can measure how many went straight to one brand, the number that dithered and those that compared several, at the same time as sorting shoppers by age, gender and ethnicity.
VideoMining analyzed people in convenience stores buying drinks. Typically it would take them two minutes, with the majority going straight to one brand. “This shows their mind was already made up; they were on autopilot,” says Dr Sharma. So producers should spend their marketing money outside, not inside, the store. The analysis can also help establish the return on investment to a new advertising campaign by showing what proportion of drink-buyers can be persuaded to consider rival brands. Another study in a supermarket some 12% of people spent 90 seconds looking at juices, studying the labels but not selecting any. In supermarket decision-making time, that is forever. This implies that shoppers are very interested in juices as a healthy alternative to carbonated drinks, but are not sure which to buy. So there is a lot of scope for persuasion.
Reducing the selection on offer might help too. Cassie Mogilner of Stanford University and her colleagues found in a study that consumers like unfamiliar products to be categorized—even if the categories are meaningless. In a study of different coffees they found people were more satisfied with their choice if it came from a categorized selection, although it did not matter if the categories were marked simply A, B and C, or “mild”, “dark roast” and “nutty”.
Compiled in Editorial Board of Retailiran