The Great Tangle

by Michael Laux

Why do people do what they do?

That’s the question that drives consumer research. And it’s the question that drives our never-ending quest for insights – insights that can help us unravel the cryptic threads of human emotion, perception and behavior to reveal something groundbreaking – something that can transform the way a business approaches consumers.

For example, what exactly turns a window shopper into a “real” shopper? It’s a simple question we wanted to answer for a global retailer of toys and games. Shoppers may say they like a window display and they may have positive feelings toward a window display but how do we know if and how these thoughts and feelings actually translate into purchase behavior?

The good news is that today’s researchers are better equipped than ever to untangle this web of complexity. Thanks to new methodologies and expanding data sources, we can dig deeper to uncover the layers and study the variables independently to reveal a more complete vision of consumer behavior. We can triangulate, or examine multiple angles to a question, to get to a more holistic picture.

Vast mound of data

Traditionally, researchers ask questions through well-crafted surveys, observe behavior and probe in qualitative settings, use advanced analytics to derive insight and at times link to external data about what people do. Today, we can complement those techniques with tools that measure non-conscious aspects of what people do, ask questions in the moment of experience and leverage their willingness to share parts of their multimedia kaleidoscope lives in the form of video, picture and online interactions. A myriad of information is available on what people do by virtue of connected devices, adding to an already vast mound of data.

Graphic 1 - BYM edition

The graphic above is an attempt to catalog the tools available for marketing research today based on the key areas they illuminate. Each tool provides different perspectives about what people think, feel and do. While not a perfect or exhaustive classification, the point is we have a plethora of tools to help us untangle the messy process of decision-making. And that toolkit keeps expanding. It’s important to clarify that several of these tools and information sources are new and some are still being studied to ensure they meet their intended goals. The study of human behavior is, after all, an ever-expanding exercise.

So the real question then becomes: Which tools do we leverage to view different angles of the story to find more complete insights? To answer that question, we need to clearly define and determine the specific research goals:

  • Which behaviors do we seek to understand?
  • Is observation critical to learning?
  • Is it important to capture insights close to the moment of experience?
  • Are unarticulated insights on behaviors, motivations and emotions vital to the research?
  • Can we triangulate multiple inputs to build holistic insights?
  • What is the best way to organize the plan for learning?

The responses to these questions help guide the selection of the best tools to achieve the research goals. More and more, the most comprehensive answer lies in the triangulation of several pieces of the puzzle. Leveraging additional tools to gain more insight into consumer behavior provides more holistic answers for the researcher, ultimately helping them make better, more strategic business decisions – which is exactly what happened with our retailer client.

Untangling the various aspects

So, how do we learn about what exactly turns a window shopper into a real shopper, one willing to pay for toys and games in our client’s stores? The challenge centered on untangling the various aspects of how, why and if window displays influenced shoppers’ purchase behavior.

Incurring a substantial cost each year on domestic and international window displays, the retailer sought to better understand which specific display elements were – and weren’t – connecting with consumers. The window displays rotated popular themes and each execution of the display differed in style, elements and creative enhancement. The displays changed frequently, requiring concept and design teams, builders, manpower before and after hours and the coordination of multiple different departments. If the retailer knew which display and which elements of the display were the most successful in drawing shoppers into its stores, the company could implement a consistent global strategy for its retail outlets and, in turn, save a substantial amount of time and money. The end goal for our client was to centralize, streamline and economize its global display strategy for all retail outlets.

We sought to understand the impact of three different window displays. Key questions included: How much influence and stopping power does a retail window display have on potential shoppers? What elements are the most successful in generating more foot traffic? Does viewing another shopper engaging with the product create stopping power? Ultimately, does an eye-catching window translate into higher store sales?

After discussing our client’s needs to define the research learning plan and objectives, we determined there were strong behavioral components behind what people think, feel and do that were important to study and triangulate to find a more complete answer to their question. It was also critical to measure reactions in the moment of experience and to observe behaviors in front of these windows. Many times researchers attempt to answer these questions using the most familiar tools available – the survey, some form(s) of qualitative and … well, we may have stopped there. Today, we know that asking questions and observing people provides quality information but that information doesn’t necessarily tell us the full story. Shoppers who say they like a window display may not necessarily go into the store and buy toys. Shoppers who buy may or may not say the windows had an influence but they may have stood in front of it the longest.

Quite a tangle, indeed.

That is why we created a learning plan that offered a 360-degree view of consumer behavior to create a more holistic perspective. The learning plan included:

  • A quantitative survey evaluation. The survey was a critical first step in understanding what shoppers say about the influence of window displays.
  • Intercept interviews. Qualitative interviews with shoppers at the storefront let us probe and gain more insight into how people say they feel about window displays in the moment of the experience.
  • In-the-moment “foot-tracking”data. This data allowed us to analyze what people do in front of window displays (whether or not they stop, how long they linger) and, more importantly, whether they actually go into the store.
  • Point-of-sale purchase data. Provided by the retailer, this was the key behavioral outcome variable and was studied in parallel to the other inputs.

Each piece was examined, in detail, to identify and synthesize key, unique learnings in three areas: what people think, what they feel and what they do. Much of our learning took place at the moment of experience in front of the windows, which provided us with the opportunity to observe real time and capture nuances that may have been lost with time and not recollected as accurately. This “think, feel, do” triangulation quickly revealed that what shoppers think about a window does not necessarily translate to behavior. For example, in our quantitative survey, Window A could have significantly higher ratings than Window B on “coolness,” uniqueness and preference. Further, in qualitative, Window A may even receive plaudits for its “wit” or “creativity” – but the behavioral angle told another story.

While Window A was praised for many reasons – and its novelty was not unmissed by shoppers – shopper behavior did not change based on the “cool” elements of Window A. That’s right: There was no greater foot traffic in the store when Window A was displayed and sales remained the same regardless of which window was tested.

While the story was clear, the answer was surprising. We knew window displays were important to the extent that they entertain shoppers and positively support the brand. They also give passersby gift ideas and shopping inspiration during the holidays. But do windows correlate with changing behavior? Do they directly impact the bottom line?

Not for this retailer, according to our research.

We concluded that the retailer did not need to spend extensive amounts of money or time on window displays and the company definitely did not need to continuously update these displays. Our research taught the firm how to optimize and simplify its strategy (both in terms of dollars and execution) while not negatively impacting its shopper base.

Create a truer picture

In behavioral sciences, it is common knowledge that consumers are not entirely rational beings – they don’t always do what they say or say what they think. Therefore it is up to us, as researchers, to insist on a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to learning and the application of different tools to learn about different angles of behavior to create a truer picture of consumer motivation. At the end of the day, it was this philosophy of triangulation that helped us untangle this particular case so neatly. Without multiple inputs, this retailer would have made a decision on its window display strategy based solely on the angle of what consumers say. By adding in angles focused on how consumers feel and what consumers do, our picture of them was deeply enhanced, allowing the client to make a more informed decision on its global strategy.

Consumers are complex, fickle, impressionable and – all too often – unsure of their own motivations. And that’s on a good day. But now, researchers have more tools and resources than ever before to assist in the search for answers, for meaning, for understanding. After all, that is what “research” is – a search. And, rest assured, with an open mind we will always look for new approaches and innovations that help us formulate more holistic answers and make our lives … a little less tangled.

This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Quirk’s magazine.

With over 20 years of experience, Michael Laux is passionate about crafting creative solutions that help clients build strong, healthy, profitable brands.

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Source: Feature Image – @AleksandarNakic –


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