What Shoppers Say - And What They Do

Gathering Research Insights to Improve Point-of-Sale Marketing

As marketers recognize the importance of point-of-sale, they want to better understand shoppers' needs, priorities, and behavior at-retail. Specifically, they want to know how purchase decisions are made - and how to consistently influence shoppers in the aisle.

Meaningful insights can come from directly asking people about their shopping habits. For example, studies often reveal that shoppers are driven by users and usage occasions: They approach the shelf looking for a product to meet a specific need, be it filling the children's lunchbox, cleaning the bathroom, or protecting their new stereo. At the shelf, however, they typically encounter a barrage of product claims (low fat, new oxy foam, 300 megahertz, etc.) - and products that are organized by strength (i.e., good, better, best) or product form (i.e. oxy, foam, gel, etc.), rather than usage occasion. This "disconnect" often complicates the shopping experience - and it creates an opportunity to break through clutter with products and point-of-sale materials that create personal relevance by speaking more directly to users and usage occasions.

However, gathering these insights is not always as simple as it may seem. That's because simply asking people about their shopping process can also result in misleading feedback. This article will explain why and explore the "gap" between claimed and actual shopping behavior. It will also share some insights gathered from observing shoppers at retail and their implications for improving point-of-sale marketing efforts.


• Purchases are Largely Pre-Planned

• Decisions are Generally Logical: Based on a Comparison of Products (Features, Benefits, etc.)

• Aesthetics Don't Matter: A Pretty Package Doesn't Matter


• Many Purchases are on Impulse (Over Two-Thirds)

• Shoppers Default to the Familiar, and Comparison Shopping is Limited Due to Time Pressures

• Decisions are Influenced Greatly by Brand Visibility (Unseen is Unsold):

Aesthetics/Appearance Drive

Visibility & Attention


The first danger in speaking directly with shoppers is that there are "built-in biases" as to how people remember and describe their own shopping experiences. This goes well beyond giving the "right answers" to certain questions (i.e., Do you care about the environment?) in order make themselves look and feel good. On a more fundamental level, there is a tendency for people to describe their shopping processes as very logical and fact-driven. For this reason, shoppers consistently place an over-emphasis on "hard" factors (i.e., product features, benefits, pricing, etc.), as opposed to "softer" factors (i.e., appearance, packaging, etc.). In other words, if you ask someone how they selected a certain cough/cold medicine, you will most likely hear about the importance of a trusted brand, the need to treat specific symptoms, and the value of certain safety reassurances. You will most likely not hear that about the picture of a mother and child on one brand's packaging that created an emotional reaction/connection and ultimately drove consideration and purchase. Thus, traditional "decision trees" often provide a misleading picture of the shopping experience.

Shoppers' Claimed Discrimination Process: A Sample Decision Hierarchy


Adult/Child: Is it for an adult or a child?

Ailment/Symptom: Is it for a flu, cold, cough or allergies?


Brand/Price: National brand or private label?

Efficacy: Regular or Extra Strength?

How long will it last?

Formulation: Do I want a nighttime or daytime product? (Drowsy vs. Non-Drowsy)

Form: Tablets, Liquids, Fast Melt, Type of Pills?

Size: Which package size?

What number of pills?

When talking about their descending priorities, shoppers consistently place an over-emphasis on "hard" factors (i.e. product features, benefits, pricing, etc.), as opposed to "softer" factors (i.e. appearance, packaging, etc.).


The second limitation in relying on direct feedback ties to the nature of the shopping experience itself. As stores expand and choices proliferate, the in-store experience becomes more and more overwhelming in terms of sheer quantity of stimuli (products, packages, displays, etc.). Given this overload, there is simply no way for shoppers to make logical decisions in each category, as they tend to claim. Instead, shoppers absolutely need to use "shortcuts" to sort through the myriad:

• In habitual categories (including many staples, such as orange juice), shoppers tend to be on "autopilot" - they simply look for their usual brand, and then "grab and go," without actively considering other options. This pattern helps to explain the incredible odds against new products, which have failure rates of over 80 percent.

• In higher-ticket and less frequent categories (including many technology categories, such as computers), shoppers tend to do a considerable amount of "homework" via the web, and then go to the store to find a specific product. In these categories, purchase decisions don't typically change at-retail, unless a salesperson becomes actively involved in advising and guiding the shopper.

The greater potential to impact purchase decisions at retail comes both in impulse categories (such as candy, single-serve beverages, etc.) and in less frequently or habitually purchased categories (such as OTC pharmaceuticals, home products, etc.). In these categories, shoppers typically use point-of-sale materials and visual cues to sort through options and simplify their shopping experience. This process is largely physiological and it is difficult, if not impossible, for shoppers to articulate. Therefore, PRS Eye-Tracking has been used to actually document shoppers' viewing patterns and visual engagement with packages, product categories, and displays. Some generalized findings are as follows:

• While shoppers often use ceiling-based signage to navigate through the store (i.e., to find a department), once they are in the aisle, their primary visual involvement is at arm level or eye-level. Therefore, packages and point-of-sale materials that are above eye-level are very likely to be missed or ignored.

• When actively selecting among products, shoppers can actively "take-in" only about 4 - 6 feet of shelf at a single time. Therefore, it is critical to create a "signpost" in the aisle (via signage or a mini-section) to help shoppers "de-select" from 20- to 30-foot wide categories down to the 4 - 6 feet featuring your brand.

• Even when shoppers actively consider a subsection of 4 - 6 feet, they completely miss/ignore over one-third of the brands on shelf. Therefore, it is critical to maximize shelf visibility via optimal shelving (central and arm-level) and/or by creating contrast (through color blocking, unique structures and/or strong icons).

As these points indicate, research strongly suggests that what happens at retail is largely a function of what people see (and miss), as opposed to a logical process driven by shoppers' priorities. However, if you ask someone why they selected a certain electric razor, you will most likely not hear that a display or package "broke through the clutter" to grab their attention.


Despite the issues raised above, marketers should not hesitate in their efforts to better understand - and ultimately to influence - shoppers' decisions at retail. However, in gathering input, they should consider the need to complement direct questioning with observed behavior in the aisle.

As has been seen, shoppers' claimed priorities (i.e., what they are looking for) tell only a partial story - and one that systematically discounts the importance of aesthetics and retail visibility in driving purchase decisions. While claimed decision hierarchies shouldn't be dismissed, they do need to be "overlaid" with documentation of what shoppers actually do at retail. Specifically, marketers should look to document and understand:

• How shoppers navigate the store (traffic patterns)

• Engagement with point-of-sale materials (end caps, displays, etc.)

• The "de-selection" process in the aisle (getting to the 4 - 6 feet to shop)

• Category viewing patterns (start point, horizontal vs. vertical scanning, etc.)

• Evidence of comparison shopping (vs. grab and go)

• Visual engagement/consideration with specific brands and products - and its linkage to pick-up and purchase

In addition, experience suggests that there are questions that marketers should avoid asking shoppers, because the answers are likely to be misleading. Specifically, it's best to avoid asking direct questions about the importance of packaging or point-of-sale efforts, because they will likely be understated (i.e., "I'm buying the product, not the package."). Similarly, it is not productive to ask people why they saw something, because the viewing process is physiological (driven by visual contrast and location), rather than a conscious decision.

With this said, it is also important to realize that purely behavioral or observational research also has its limitations. Surveillance videotapes can uncover obvious problems (such as products shelved out-of-reach or shopper frustration), but they typically can't uncover the "why" behind purchase decisions. Similarly, sales data can confirm that a display system is not working, but it can't typically tell what is "breaking down." (Is the display being ignored completely? Is it getting attention, but failing to drive involvement and close sale?) And thus can't point towards a solution. To gather needed diagnostics, it is needed to observe shopping experiences, and then probe to understand the "why" behind the decision.

Ultimately, understanding shopper behavior requires the science of observation - and the art of integrating these findings with shoppers' claimed priorities and decision processes. And while you can't always believe exactly what you hear from shoppers, the investment in learning more about the shopping experience is nearly always worthwhile. Given the increasing complexity of the retail environment - and the enormous number of purchase decisions made in the aisle - marketers who truly understand shopping dynamics are very likely to be well-rewarded.

Scott Young is the president of Perception Research Services (www.prsresearch.com), a company that conducts over 600 consumer research studies annually to help marketers win at-retail. Scott can be reached at syoung@prsresearch.comor 201-346-1600.