Best practices for shop-alongs

Editor’s note: Michael Carlon is vice president in the New York office of Truth Consulting, a London research firm. Carlon will outline his views on rethinking the shopper insights function in the June issue of Quirk’s.

One of the most common shopper insights techniques I am asked to plan on behalf of my clients is the accompanied shop, also known as the shop-along. These are pre-planned interviews conducted in the context of a retail environment with the goal of uncovering greater insight into a shopper’s needs and attitudes in the context where behavior takes place.

Over the years I have uncovered some best practices in conducting an accompanied shop and these are outlined below.

Don’t start the interview at the store. The process of shopping doesn’t begin when a shopper enters a retail establishment; it most often starts in the home and that’s where your interview should begin. It is important to see where a shopper starts to plan a trip and the tools they use to inform purchase decisions and retail choice (circulars, the Internet, coupons, etc.) as this will provide a more holistic picture of the shopper. In addition, there are two practical reasons for starting in home. One, you will have a more comfortable setting for asking the series of upfront questions that need to be answered to uncover insights into the shopper’s planning process and mind-set. Two, since the shopper and the researcher have (likely) never met, starting in-home reduces the awkwardness a shopper may experience while searching for the researcher in the store (particularly if it is a club store or supercenter). Tip: Never drive with a shopper to the store. For insurance reasons, always take separate cars to reduce liability should you get involved in a fender-bender along the way.

Always obtain retailer approval to conduct an interview in-store. Even though accompanied shopping trips involve a pre-recruited consumer and not a store intercept, the retailer should know that you are conducting an interview in their store for two primary reasons. First, feathers may be ruffled when you present your findings to the retailer and it is the first time they are hearing that you used their store as a research laboratory. Second, you never want to deal with the police while conducting an accompanied shopping trip. On more than one occasion, a store manager has called the police on one of my colleagues who was conducting an accompanied shop in their store. If the store manager does not know you are coming, he or she may think you are soliciting their customers – which is against the law. This could have negative repercussions for your end client (e.g., the manufacturer) and, trust me, your client does not want to be on the receiving end of a customer complaint involving an accompanied shop gone bad.

Invest in a Flip-type camera. Walking around the store with a big video camera will call unnecessary attention to you and your shopper. The store manager may also view this as disruptive to the shopping experience of other shoppers. A small Flip video camera can easily be turned on and off as needed to capture compelling footage at shelf.

What type of images should you shoot? Well, while it’s great to get footage at-shelf, one efficient way of obtaining compelling video is to have the shopper summarize the experience and his/her opinions at the end of the interview while standing in the store parking lot. These summary clips are easier to edit and are often a good source for storytelling.

Also, remember to bring your laptop with you so you can transfer your video files between your camera and computer between interviews. Flip cameras typically only hold one to two hours of footage and it is best to go into each interview with a clean memory on your camera.

Bring an abundance of spare batteries. Flip cameras burn through batteries like crazy. So bring a stockpile of spare batteries with you and change them after every few hours of footage. If you have a camera with a rechargeable battery, be sure to keep it plugged into a USB port on your computer after you transfer files between interviews so that it can be recharged.

This entry was posted in Brand and Image Research, Consumer Research, Ethnographic Research, Marketing Best Practices, Qualitative Research, The Business of Research. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Best practices for shop-alongs

  1. Thanks for 4-point article on retail survey (f2f interviewing) which is good. The best part is the tip you have provided to travel in different vehicles which I assume many of them don’t think is ignored.

  2. Amy says:

    Great point about getting insights into the pre-shopping planning process and mindset.

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