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What CSI Can Teach Us About Shopper Behavior

Great retailers know they must be in the rhythm of societal trends. We know how contemporary Apple stores, Abercrombie, Sephora's, and Coach stores feel. But I want to talk about plain old grocery shopping.

Like a CSI episode, where the evidence at first is invisible but then magically becomes apparent to the talented investigator throughout the crime scene, the forensic evidence about what people want from retail and what keeps them up at night is right there in their shopping cart.

crime scene

  1. Concern for our planet and our bodies. Ten years ago, grocery retailers didn't offer reusable, sustainable bags. Entenmann's cakes greeted the shopper while today, even in mainstream supermarkets, it's fresh organic produce. Now, concerns for the environment are built into mainstream offerings and their packaging.
  2. Concern for making ends meet. Wal-Mart gains market share. Coupon use is way up. Store brands are gaining share. Obviously, shoppers are worried about money and at retail, we can observe them making the tradeoffs to make ends meet.
  3. The need for simplifying life. Convenience stores are how gas stations make money. Prepared meals in supermarkets make life grab n' go. Many people don't even enter the store, they order online.
  4. Small indulgences. As we rush to get through a shopping trip as fast as possible, suddenly we slow down as we pass the artisan cheeses and breads. We stop at the olive bar. We can't pass up the tasting stations. We might buy the cheapest coffee but we also get a bag of something special.
  5. The rise of multi-cultural America. Smart grocery retailers now have culturally relevant store formats. Publix stores in Hispanic and Anglo-white neighborhoods are designed to look nothing like each other.
  6. Diversity of lifestyles. Out of the 40,000 products in a typical supermarket, an average shopper buys only 400 items in a year, so it's no surprise that no two market baskets are exactly alike.

DunnHumby is a consulting firm that turned shopper forensics into a high science. They code each product a shopper buys into life traits and then infer a lot about that shopper by analyzing their purchases over time. For example, it's easy to tell who the young mothers are and who is on a diet. This approach made U.K. also-ran Tesco number one by telling them much more about their shoppers than any retailer ever knew before.

While forensic analysis is good, retailers shouldn't only analyze the crime scene, they need to look for manufacturers who can help them anticipate society and translate that into merchandising action. For example, Kimberly-Clark partnered with Walgreens to help them understand the shopping experience for the elderly and what they can do about it. Executives wore glasses that blurred and yellowed their vision, and put tape on their hands in a way that mimicked the restrictions from arthritis. This program led to new merchandising concepts. I imagine we'll see products on lower shelving, big letter labeling, and perhaps personal shoppers.

Manufacturers and retailers must see people as the full human ... theatre in the round. It's all there if you know what to look for as during the course of a big shopping trip, a shopper's life is put on display. Ask Bill Peterson or Paco Underhill.

marketing shift

Joel RubinsonJoel Rubinson is Chief Research Officer at The ARF, where he directs the organization's priorities and initiatives on behalf of 400+ advertisers, advertising agencies, associations, research firms, and media companies. Joel is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and an active blogger. He holds an MBA in statistics and economics from the University of Chicago and a BS from NYU and never leaves home without his harmonica. Follow him on Twitter: @joelrubinson.