On-site Consumer Research

"...It's all in the details"

By David Kay

Purchase decisions are made in the store, the showroom, the restaurant. This is where the action happens. This is where consumer research should be conducted.

When the premises (the store, the restaurant, the shopping mall) are the subject of the research, or when the purchase decision is made with one eye on the shelf and one hand on the shopping cart, then the research should be conducted on premises using the five types of interviews described below.

When the task is to improve the design of the facility, the look, the atmosphere, the image, the traffic pattern, the on-premises merchandising, the shelving, signage, counters, washrooms, menu board, promotions, etc., it is best to have the customer go through a real-time, real eating/shopping/buying/browsing experience. Then interview him or her on the spot.

Shoppers, travelers, restaurant-goers react to the whole experience. But they are most influenced by the details. And they can recall and discuss these details most effectively during a real shopping, eating, traveling experience - not one week later in a focus group facility or at home during a telephone interview.

Here are the five types of information that can best be obtained through on-site research. The interview pattern is always from least directed to most directed, but not all types of interviews will be conducted in every study.

    1.   Stream of consciousness interview - A conversation rather than a grilling. The interview questions are designed to elicit what the respondent is experiencing at every moment of the shopping/restaurant/airline trip.

    Stream of consciousness interviews were used when we traveled with and interviewed frequent flyer business travelers on long-haul flights (over three hours). We invited them to describe their travel experiences, their thoughts and feelings as they were happening. By letting them talk freely, we learned that travelers were frustrated and angry at the loss of control over the process, from the moment they entered the limo, to waiting at the check-in counter, going through security, sitting in the departure lounge, standing in the loading bridge and tripping over the other guy's carry-on in the aircraft aisle. A key response from the airline was to give travellers better control over the process

    2.   Spontaneous reaction interview - invite spontaneous, minimally prompted reactions of customers to their environment (prompting comes later). The key question, after walking around the shop, is "Tell me about this restaurant/store/mall, etc." By avoiding specific prompting, the respondent will share with the interviewer the most important influence on attitude.

    A national bank built offices with glass walls for customer contact staff who provide non-teller services (loans, mortgages, investment products, etc.). It believed that glass offices would demonstrate that it is approachable. Instead it robbed customers of a sense of privacy. Also, the staff was always on view and felt the need to acknowledge other customers who waved to them as they walked through the branch, which made the customer feel even more on view.

    When we asked customers to tell us, in the most general terms, what it feels like doing business in that bank, the spontaneous customer reaction was "I'm not comfortable in this office."

    Every transaction was a distraction. The bank changed its glass walls.

    3.   Directed General Response Interview - Directed general response interviews are a good way to determine whether a strategy has been met. The key questions are general, but are directed to the strategy, for example, "Is this restaurant friendly? Is this store easy to shop in? Does this seem like a good value store?"-"Why?"-"Are the uniforms casual, professional, modern, formal?"-"Why?" In one study, respondents told us that a new restaurant restored did not feel welcoming. Instead, it felt threatening because it was too open (floor-to-ceiling glass wall). Customers felt exposed.

    Instead of talking to us about window shades, decals on the glass, or plants in the windows, our respondents told us they wanted protection from drive-by shootings. They wanted real walls. A new design model was developed for the rest of the chain.

    4.   Directed Specific Response Interview - Once the consumers' pattern of response and general attitude have been established, the next task is to determine why they feel the way they do, using directed specific response questions such as "What makes this racetrack modern and up to date?" Respondents can answer in a focused manner.

    5.   Prompted reaction to execution elements - The one constant in nearly all on-site research is the requirement to investigate response to the specific executional elements, for example: "Tell me about the restaurant's artifacts, do they convey elegance?" "Tell me about the uniforms. Do they suggest that..."

    In one study, consumers told us that the artifacts in a restaurant with a European theme looked Mexican. The effect jarred. The artifacts were changed.

    Two types of research can only be obtained through on-site research. These are:

    • Impulse purchase research
    • Constructs, i.e. building new products "on the floor"

    Consumers buy many types of purchases on impulse. They can only tell us what prompted the impulse purchase at the time and place of the purchase. Memory is least reliable in this circumstance. On-site research is the only reliable way to determine what generated the impulse purchase.

    Finally, "constructs," i.e. working with consumers to build new products is one of the most exciting types of consumer research that works especially well on the premises. Consumers can actually create new product concepts while walking through a store with a moderator, by combining aspects of different products seen on shelf. "I like that type of package. I like that other type of product. Why can't they combine the two?"

    On-site consumer research can be conducted almost anywhere. During the past 15 years, we have conducted research in:

    • stores ranging from a lottery kiosk, to small boutiques, to box stores
    • Supermarkets
    • Restaurants
    • Bank brances
    • Racetracks
    • Airports
    • On-board aircraft
    • In cars during a test drive
    • Shopping centres

    We've interviewed householders while they cleaned their bathrooms.

    We've interviewed children in classrooms about a new Junior Achievement program.

    Consumer reaction to an environment is influenced by all of the elements. In a store or restaurant, reaction is influenced by lighting, colors, decoration, signage, merchandising, ceiling patterns, packaging, counters, traffic pattern, staff attitude, end aisle displays, etc. But the interplay and the key influences are not always obvious or remembered. To determine the overall effect and the influences, the research should be conducted on-site.