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Shopping for Insights in the Express Check-Out Line

shopping cart image smallI was shopping for groceries with my 12-year old son the other day -a quick trip to the store that qualified us for the express check-out line. On the way out he said to me:

"It must be more fun to work the express line, because you can really learn things about people."

Well spoken young researcher.

Look into full shopping carts and you'll see a lot of the same things - milk; eggs; orange juice; the ever-popular banana. With our shared national culture, neighborhoods built around people from similar socio-economic backgrounds, and good old fashioned peer pressure we're all alike in many ways. Except for where we're not, and that (to paraphrase my son) is the fun part.

If you had the time to dig through a person's cart (and if she LET you look through her cart) you'd come...

...closer to understanding what makes her truly unique, or satisfied, or afraid.  You'd be able to tell her story in a far more differentiated way. Thing is you wouldn't have the time nor the permission. But you could skip on over to the 15 items or less queue and get a bit more "intimate."

What's up woman just behind me in line? That's 12 containers of yogurt you got there, across two different brands, and nothing else.

Hey dude in front of me. I like sushi, but who buys 3 cartons of it at a time? Not too many people I imagine. Got some sort of party going down?

Now, here's the (inevitable) connection to our lives as market research practitioners.

Our time with consumers is brief, and so our opportunity to get at new insights is limited. There's always the temptation to gather information "whole cart" information, but the reality of the typical 5-to-7-week research project cycle is that (a) you won't have the time to sift through all those data to find the real points of differentiation, and (b) it will cost you (either in terms of study expense, or data quality, or both) to get permission from the consumer to ask that many questions. We need to find more opportunities to create "express line" feedback opportunities.

Want better insights? My top 3 suggestions:

  • Create more "express line" questions - ones that ask people to make hard choices rather than just giving ratings. Ones that make people tell you "this is what I really want."
  • Stand up for shorter surveys? Of course. While most of us still face the reality of implementing questionnaires that are longer than we'd like, that doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to push back on additions that are more about covering all bases than they are about core objectives.
  • Leverage your hypotheses about the market, and incorporate pre-existing data, so that your analysis can be more focused on new and/or differentiating questions. Even segmentation studies - notorious for generating reference-book-like questionnaires - typically end up coming down to 10 or so key variables.

The next time you're at the grocery store, I encourage you to be just a little bit weird and take in the action at the express line as a market researcher. You'll get a kick out of the stories to be found there, and will pick up an example or two of why surveys should generally be shorter. You might even come to know why that guy and his 12-year old son are buying nothing but eggs and a pile of pancetta (the answer, Sosnowskis can only go so long without Spaghetti Carbonara).

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