A Stint in Super Market Shopper Research

Super markets are the equivalent of vast palaces devoted to the display and selling of food but probably the more important items for sale are the health and beauty aids. Ask any manager and you’ll soon see that’s where the money lies. But this blog isn’t about H&BA, but super market shopper research.

Today, I read an interesting article devoted to the workings of super markets as a vehicle to get us to buy more, consume more and to hell with our diets. Reading the information on packaging isn’t all that helpful and, please, who really reads all of it, especially when you’re hungry? In fact, hungry shoppers are the darlings of the trade because they are wonderful impulse buyers who frantically fill their carts (oh, and cart size figures into the equation) and run up and down the aisles doing so. Fact: the bigger the cart, the smaller your number of items appears to be so you’ll buy more. Great ploy.

The placement of certain high-margin food products or impulse items is certainly something that every super market manager and chain takes quite seriously. How they got there is an interesting story and I happened to be one of the minor players in it years ago. Working as a lowly editorial writer for a then-major super market trade journal, I was sent to the Midwest where with a clumsy portable tape recorder, a clipboard and a store layout plan, I was sent on a mission.

I was to follow each shopper around the store (or as many as I could during the day) and on my trusty layout sheet place either an “x” or an “o” for “put in cart” or “put back on shelf.” This provided a pretty clear picture of which items were being considered and which would be bought. I also put a black line on my layout sheet which delineated the path taken by the shopper.

Where did shoppers go first and how did they traverse the store’s terrain? Was it haphazard or was there some plan and could this pattern be manipulated? Of course it could and would in future store layouts. My employer, in fact, would go on to produce a book devoted to super market designs. It would be one of my first book projects.

At the end of following a shopper’s trek, I was to approach with my trusty tape recorder slung over my shoulder and try to record a simple conversation in a surreptitious manner. Since the on-board microphone was at the top of the recorder, I’d have to tug it up far enough to just appear that I was adjusting the weight. I got quite a few weird looks when I did that. It was almost as though they thought I’d do something awful with that thing. Not many shoppers (almost all women) wanted to talk and those who did cut it short. I was, after all, interrupting their day and they did have things to do besides talk to me.

Ending the week with a stack of marked-up layouts and practically no comments from shoppers, I headed back to the office. My materials plus that of about four or five editors was used to help a manufacturers’ organization to assist in market design. Today, you follow the path all of us laid out for you and you do it in a planned path to maximize profit and wear you down. Choice overload might be one word for it, too. Take a look at the overwhelming display of breakfast food and you get the “overload” portion of it. The all jockey for display space.

The survey, ultimately, determined where products were to be placed (mid-shelf, end display, etc.) and who was to do the placement—manufacturers’ representatives it turned out. Having the manufacturers fill the shelves resulted in less store time being spent on this and insuring that the products were always available.

Color choice for package design was the fiefdom of the ad agencies and that added into the mix. Yellow was seen as too harsh for a detergent. Can’t remember the other colors and what their optimum use would be in product packaging. Interesting factoid here: One of the major figures in store design and layout was famed architect Philip Johnson, designer of, among others, the Seagram Building in New York City. Pretty major talent there. This should provide a pretty good assessment of how important super market design was and would be in the future.

The stores we shop in today are carefully crafted to draw us around the perimeter so that we pick up items that are non-perishable and end up with those that require refrigeration. Ribboning up and down the aisles we are sure to bump into “sore thumb displays” with splashy merchandise that has a primo bottom-line effect for the markets. The die was cast years ago, by people just like me, who walked around stores following shoppers. Did those shoppers realize they were framing the store of the future? I doubt it. All they wanted was stuff for dinner.

A word to the wise: Never go shopping hungry because, if you do, you are a store’s dream customer but your wallet will feel the bite.


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Dr. Farrell is a psychologist, WebMD consultant, SAG/AFTRA member, author, interested in film, writing & health. Website: http://t.co/VT8mvcAvRz

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