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Developing Shopper Insights

Developing Shopper Insights

The art of and the science behind developing shopper insights

Around this time of year, when I see all the children return to school after a summer vacation, I get a little nostalgic. My memories transport me back in time and I remember when I had to have the coolest back-to-school supplies, whether it was the pack of crayons with lots of variety or a lunchbox that would be the envy of every kid in the lunchroom. And then I remember the fights with my father over some items that he felt were either too expensive or not practical. Eventually we would agree on something that both of us found acceptable. And how that relates to shopper insights.

As a branding consultant, I now understand all too well that the reason for the struggle between him and I back then was that he was the shopper, I was the consumer, and we had vastly different motivations. More than just a happy memory, this part of my history has become an important tool for me on many of my projects where I find it important to distinguish between the very different roles of the consumer and the shopper. They are not always one in the same and need to be treated as such.

On one such recent project I was studying the motivations of consumers buying nutritional shakes. Eager to get firsthand data, I would go to retail locations, and strike up a conversation with anyone that was considering a purchase. The first few people I interviewed were all consumers and I got some great insights from them. Then I happened to interview someone who was purely a shopper, a wife buying the shakes for her spouse. As we conversed, I noticed that her motivations were strikingly different from the others I interviewed.

The consumers were influenced by their habits, making the product a part of their routine. Also, I noticed that peer pressure played a role as they tended to use the same products as their friends. They described in detail where they fit on the adoption curve. As they became regular users, they had traded up from basic shakes to ones with specific features that appealed to a specialized need of theirs.

The wife I interviewed was a shopper, and while she knew what her spouse wanted in terms of brand, quality, and features; you could tell the purchase was a function of the motivations of both her and her spouse. She was trying to make smart choices and knew what fit into their weekly budget. She also had time and physical constraints which determined what specific brands and where she bought the nutrition shakes.

Understanding where these practical, behavioral, and psychological factors intersect is crucial to marketers attempting to develop a successful interaction. Of course, while my examples above were conveniently split into 2 roles, the reality is that much of the time the consumer and shopper are the same person. But the principles I’ve laid out are relevant regardless, as the consumer is of two minds and will choose the product which fits where the shopper (practical) and consumer (emotional) side of themselves overlap; feeling in control *and* as if they are a smart shopper.

The Shopper Value Chain

The modern supermarket. One of the least appreciated marvels of the past century. Thousands of products, brands, price points, year-round produce and everything one needs to run their home. But as a marketer, I marvel just as much at the amount of consumer insight and planning required to organize the layout and shelves of the supermarket. It’s also the perfect setting to discuss the Shopper Value Chain and find parallels in other shopping experiences whether physical or digital. Those who feel the user experience only recently became important with digital applications need to familiarize themselves with just how much shopper experts need to climb inside the head of consumers and guide their journey to a successful purchase.

There are six key elements to improve shopping experience and increase purchase at the point of sale. Put on your shopper hat and climb into the cart with me as we go along with our shopper Mario on a trip to the local supermarket and explore each one of these elements, how they fit into our journey, and how we can drive his behavior.

Habits play a central role in our shopper Mario’s trip to the super market. Based on his habits he’ll usually have a made out a planned, physical or mental list of things he needs to purchase. This list may not be comprehensive if he’s forgotten something. This list forms the reason to enter the store, and many stores attempt to direct shoppers at this point with flyers and advertisements. We get in the car with our shopper and head off to the market.

On his list of planned items are the usual suspects: staples like milk, eggs, bread, and dish soap that the shopper requires to be easily located in the store. These items will drive unplanned items and impulse purchases. Marketers can leverage this by grouping associated products next to the planned purchases. As we enter the store, Mario gets his cart and starts to head for the first thing on his list.

As he picks up the dish soap, he notices sponges nearby and remembers he could use a few new ones. This is an example of associating by activity, in this case washing dishes. Next, he finds the toothpaste. While he’s there he walks by hand soap and picks some up. This is called associating by proximity as each are next to each other in the bathroom. Finally, while picking up beer for the party, he sees a package of potato chips nearby and puts some in the cart, illustrating association by occasion.

Let’s freeze our shopping experience and see what some of the underlying factors are in Mario’s mind and some that are induced by the store as he walks through and makes his selections:

  • Focus: The consumer needs to maintain Focus during the experience. Our brains can process only so much information at once. Overwhelming Mario with too much stimuli can frustrate him and make him shut down, zeroing in on a few selections. For this reason, clarity, explicitness, and relevance matters when it comes to color and visuals. Reduction of clutter is important.
  • Selection: Mario’s Selection process actually begins when he de-selects what he does not find relevant before choosing the product/brand. It’s the reason why in our shopping journey he skips some aisles entirely. It also leads to the next factor.
  • Vision: Shoppers use peripheral vision to filter out what they’ve deselected, which means there are blind spots in their route. One technique to attracting attention is to incorporate vertical blocks of color, but if they are too small they won’t be noticed. On the other hand, if the blocks are too large they’ll be filtered out as if they were wallpaper.
  • Triggers: In-store triggers help getting shoppers’ brains attention, and avoid part of the aisle that is considered clutter. Common techniques are discontinuous shelving that breaks up lines and attract the eye, shelf trays and dividers, discontinuous flooring, scents, and music. When complete shop fittings are smartly placed within a store, they can have a big impact on the shopper’s experience. When Mario picked up his beer, the design of the shelving led his eye directly to the potato chips next door.
  • Adjacency: Utilizing adjacency logically fits with the shopper’s desired experience and helps to drive volume. When adjacency is done correctly, the shopper feels smart. They have an “ah-ha!” moment, which translates a planned purchase into an additional unplanned or impulse purchase.

On the other end, shoppers might have different consumption occasions and shopping missions driving their outlet selection and visit:

frameAny insight we generate depend on these strategic and tactical choices consumers take.

In conclusion, the best store layouts are built around shopper insights rather than supplier’s portfolios. When used illogically these principles make the shopper feel less in control, complicating the shopping experience resulting in frustration and the consumer shutting down. When this happens they put on their blinders and attempt to leave as soon as possible.

As we leave the store, Mario and the store are mutually satisfied with his visit. He was able to easily find everything on his list and some things that weren’t due to the store using arranging and visual techniques. He spotted some deals and was able to stock up on some items.


An innovation architect, MBA, and conceptual thinker with an insatiable curiosity about people and a passion for working at the intersection of strategy+creativity. Eric gets excited about finding creative solutions to important problems. For him the only thing more stimulating than a discussion filled with new possibilities, big ideas, and diverse opinions is prototyping the consensus solution. In the past 2 years he has worked on growth/innovation and brand strategy projects in the FMCG, Spirits & Beer, Insurance, and Auto industries.