We are Celebrating 25 Years

Market research is a dynamic profession that has seen significant changes since I started my company 25 years ago. So, I thought it would be interesting to do a month-by-month comparison of what market researchers were facing in 1989, compared to 2014. From the archaic, to the conventional, to the innovative, I hope you join me for this monthly reflection of a quarter-century of evolution in market research.

1989 – 2014: 25-YEARS IN MARKET RESEARCH. Shop ’til you drop

December 1989


Retail 25 years ago was the traditional brick and mortar store. Christmas shopping didn’t start until Black Friday, which was the day after Thanksgiving. Shoppers would line up and wait for the stores to open, often at unheard of hours like 6 AM. One-size-fits all marketing worked for many retailers. It was a time when, “presumably a person on the leading edge of technology in marketing research would have to have two million bytes, one programmer and a ream of dollars.” In his article, Customer observation: procedures, results, and implications, in Quirk’s December 1989 issue, Harry Krueckeberg makes the point that a researcher could successfully observe and report customers’ shopping experience with a clipboard, pencil, a stack of forms, and a pair of eyes. He goes on to say, “Given a computer and a little imagination, the list of beneficial information can be quite long.” Among the benefits listed were: a description of shoppers, traffic patterns, sections shopped but no purchase made, and profiles of the distribution of purchases and product inspections horizontally and vertically in the display cases.


I still use the pair of eyes and clipboard method when conducting Lane Transit District’s Park and Ride audits; possibly dating back to 1989 as LTD was my first client. I don’t recall how many bytes of data storage I had on my SE 30 Macintosh. Considering I had to re-insert floppy disks as it was loading the software application, it must not have been much. However, imagination was plentiful!



December 2014


Retail today is conducted in multiple channels, online versus the brick and mortar stores. Black Friday now starts on Thanksgiving Thursday, and has competition: Super Saturday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. Shoppers now have the ability to interact and complete transactions on their own terms, 24-7. Shoppers can view an item online, purchase it using their phone, and return it at the store.


In an effort to bridge the gap between offline and digital channels, brick and mortar retailers are stepping up their efforts to personalize shoppers’ experience. A pair of eyes has been replaced by cameras and tools like beacons which provide in-store analytics. Through geo-fencing and mobile-enabled sites, retailers are able to “observe” shoppers throughout the shopping experience.


These tools have huge potential for brick and mortars to level the playing field with e-commerce. According to the article, Behavioural tracking and neuroscience are tools for sustainable innovation, “Through online tracking mechanisms such as supercookies, browser fingerprinting, location-based identifiers, behavioural tracking, and social network leakage, marketers track both real-time behaviours on web sites – down to what you type, mouse over, purchase – and detailed personal data. So, when you land on an e-commerce site, without telling the retailer anything about yourself, they know your age, gender, physical location, favourite websites, favourite movies, comments you’ve left across the web, estimates of your income, marital status, whether you own a home, etc.”


The article goes on to say, “This sophisticated tracking has also arrived in brick and mortar stores. In-store cellular and wi-fi signal tracking systems can monitor consumers as they move through malls and stores. Apple’s iBeacon technology is now being used to track consumers to within several feet of a location within a store and even at concerts. Video surveillance and eye tracking systems track what consumers look at, focus on, and are “engaged” by. One of the most far-reaching of these initiatives involves Facebook’s partnership with data firms Acxiom, Datalogix and Epsilon to connect in-store purchases from loyalty card data to Facebook user profile data.” I don’t want my purchases showing up on my Facebook page. And, I don’t want my purchases to be analyzed.


Am I the only one concerned about how much retailers know about me? Sure, I see the convenience of walking up to a product and being able to access more information about it, such as the price and features. Plus, I like the idea of large venues using beacons to enhance my experience by showing me where the closest restroom (without a line) is located to my seat. But, as a researcher and marketer, I see the potential dark side of how this data can be used.


If retailers are going to be using tracking tools, I think they have a responsibility to be transparent and notify customers. According to the New York Times article, Attention Shoppers: Store is Tracking Your Cell, Nordstrom’s wanted to be a “part of the movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.” When Nordstrom’s posted a sign that they were tracking customers, they received backlash and ended its use. “While consumers seem to have no problem with cookies, profiles and other online tools that let e-commerce sites know who they are and how they shop, some bristle at the physical version.”


Then there is the use of Big Data to try to get into the shoppers’ mindset. One of my childhood retailers, Target, crossed the line with their use of big data. Electronic Frontier Foundation’s article, Big Data in Private Sector and Public Sector Surveillance, used Target as an example of big data used to individually target people in a certain group found within a dataset. Target used data from its baby registry to develop an algorithm that analyzes someone’s purchases in order to determine if they are pregnant, and subsequently used that algorithm to individually target people not in the registry with baby-related advertising. “By running algorithms on its customer dataset, which included looking for, among other variables, customers purchasing unscented wipes and magnesium supplements, Target’s use of big data to identify pregnant customers raises questions, like: Is it ethical to analyze its baby registry for a purpose that its customers probably did not know about? To develop an algorithm for identifying potentially pregnant customers knowing that they probably do not want to be identified? To advertise to them? To potentially offer its pregnancy assessment service to employers, insurers, or others? Collection and privacy standards must be recognized when it comes to big data as the information collected (and insight gleaned) can reflect some of the most intimate details of a person’s life.”


Retail Trends and Predictions 2014 says a future trend in retail is the on-the-go stores such as food trucks and pop-up stores. I am sure it won’t be long before there is a way to track a shoppers’ use of these pop-up and on-the-go stores as well. My solution? Have a large garden and make homemade gifts!


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