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Eavesdropping on Shoppers

By Apr 01, 2002

Tim White listens to women.

He once watched a woman walk into The Great Indoors, Sears’ two-year-old housewares chain, and pull out her cell phone. “She called a friend and said, ‘You won’t believe this place. Meet me here, in the Starbucks,’” recalls White, vp-marketing for Hoffman Estates, IL-based Sears.

The call reassured him that Great Indoors had been hearing what women were saying all along.

Retailers are listening to customers more closely than ever for advice on merchandising, product mix, value-added offers, and even cause marketing programs. Several experts addressed the topic in February at the Retail Advertising & Marketing Association’s Retail Advertising Conference in Chicago. Here’s a quick look at some of the chatter.

  • Target Stores, Minneapolis, tweaked its Start Something grant program (a joint effort with the Tiger Woods Foundation) for 2002 after focus groups last spring suggested how to simplify the process.

    Target will market the program to youth groups and schools to administer; beef up p.r. and advertising; and streamline qualifications for the $100 to $10,000 scholarship grants. (Activities range from community service to member recruitment.) Start Something signed 25,000 entrants in its first year, well short of the 200,000-plus that Woods himself projected.

    “It’s a very ambitious program that requires a lot from kids and needs parents’ follow-through,” says Eric Erickson, Target vp-creative director. Changes this year will “remove the rigid elements and add fun.”

  • Great Indoors buyers spend a quarter of their time in-store talking with customers because “no one can solve shoppers’ problems better than buyers,” says White. “Customer input enhances our brand and our relationship with [them].”

    The 13-outlet chain will add seven stores this year. Calphalon, Kitchen Aid, JennAir, and other vendors pitch in for product demonstrations and classes in the stores’ demo kitchens. Print and TV ads breaking this spring poke fun at passionate home decorators with headlines like, “Do you stay in nice hotels to get away from it all or to get ideas for your bathroom?” Grand-opening mailers carry gamepieces shoppers bring to stores to win $10 to $5,000 gift certificates. Sister Chicago shops Wunderman and Young & Rubicam handle promos and ads, respectively.

  • Minneapolis retail agency Fame opened its own store in November to serve as a research lab. Once Famous sells an eclectic mix of home furnishings, but its real function is to test merchandising, new products, and technology — and observe buying behavior.

    The Omnicom-owned agency films and tapes research participants (with their permission) to see how they shop, and watches traffic patterns from an observation deck above the store. All Fame staffers work in the store several hours a week to gain first-hand insight.

  • Chicago ad shop Foote, Cone & Belding interviewed consumers four straight months after Sept. 11. While “passion shoppers” are still buying strong, many younger (18 to 29) and older (50-plus) consumers are trading down from high-end brands. FCB calls the prevailing attitude “cautious carpe diem.”

    “Consumers are not depriving themselves of much these days,” says Paula Ausick, FCB’s director of brand equities. “Some even feel their way of life has improved thanks to sales and financing options at stores.”

  • In the future we’ll see three types of shoppers, says Cheri Anderson, a research director at SRI-BI, Menlo Park, CA. Each type is defined by what motivates them: Belief (motivated by tradition, quality, and information), Experience (emotion, novelty, and impulse), and Achievementy (aspiration and the opinion of others). By 2010, nearly 40 million Baby Boomers — about half the demo’s total — will be Belief shoppers, she says. Younger shoppers tend toward Experience motivation.

  • Some consumer research is far less formal. Wal-Mart Stores’ longtime vp-marketing, Paul Higham, recounts the evening he saw a Bentonville pickup truck with an unusual decal: “It was a [cartoon of] Calvin peeing on the Wal-Mart logo. I was steamed. I wanted to see the eyes of this jerk,” he remembers.

Higham followed the truck into a Wal-Mart parking lot and “right before my eyes, he transformed from a total jerk into a misguided customer,” concludes Higham, who told the story at the conference just days before he retired. “Always follow what people do. You can never quite trust what they say, but one thing you can take to the bank is how they behave.”

Of course, consumer research can also show when things are just fine as is.

“Sometimes we change a lot faster than consumers,” says Roy Spence, ceo of ad agency GSD&M, Austin. “If our companies aren’t grounded in core values, we can make mistakes by changing when consumers aren’t.”

Are you listening?