Reinventing shopper research – the ‘triple win’ driving growth for retailers, brands and shoppers

The evolution of shopper research.

Prior to his 25 years in shopper research, Ivan Browne, Shopper Research Consultant at Walnut UNLIMITED spent six years “at the coal face” in retail, observing customer behaviour. During this time, Ivan was intrigued that certain items sold better in one store location than another, and he wanted to know why…

Shopper research reared its head in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with very simple but effective formulas for capturing these insights – think control stores, clipboards and a lot of observation. Retailers would re-merchandise a fixture in store to see if it drove more conversion into sales and would use EPOS data and intercept interviews to get feedback.

Shopper research unlocks many growth opportunities for brands and categories and looks at how people behave and most importantly WHY. The core principles have stayed the same, but the technology and techniques have moved with the times. Ivan truly believes that innovation can and should remain at the heart of shopper research, which is what attracted him to the Walnut UNLIMITED team.

With technology now being used in shopper research, you can get much more insightful data through online communities, passive metering, online interviews, behavioural filming, eye-tracking and GSR armbands, to name just a few more technologically driven techniques. The core principles have stayed the same, but this evolution means we can now tie together attitudinal and behavioural science or employ a blend of techniques (rather than single techniques in isolation) to capture more dynamic and useful insights than ever before.

Going beyond claimed behaviour.

The goal in shopper research, according to Ivan, is to reach the ‘holy trinity’ – understanding what the shopper needs, help them with their task and understand if it is category additive (something for the retailer). But there is a relevant argument that we should not rely solely on claimed behaviour when it comes to shopper insights.

It’s acknowledged that asking questions in store with a classic clipboard method may not necessarily garner the results you need, because people post-rationalise their answers. [TW1] Moreover, neuro and behavioural science tells us that the experience of shopping draws on a mix of memories, emotions, and context – much more than can be accurately and meaningfully articulated through verbatims.

Ivan also believes that brands need to access to the subconscious mind of the shopper to nudge people to buy products, even if they did not know they needed it. Many companies such as IKEA curate their retail space through a network of arrows navigating you in the way they want you to shop, placing key impulsive products at certain points of the journey. This visibility of product triggers a need and makes us feel we have had a more productive trip than planned. If you can instigate this impulse-buying properly, this could be a growth factor for your brand.

Adapting after COVID-19.

The landscape of shopper behaviour has been completely changed by COVID. With retail space having changed dramatically, people are modifying their shopping behaviours as a result – and this is likely to stick. They are questioning whether they want to be in an enclosed space with people, there are queues outside shops, arrows directing consumer traffic, limited numbers of people in store.. Do people grab and go, or do they loiter? Certain products you cannot touch, which can affect overall decision-making. In-store surveys became a thing of the past, as this takes up too much headcount and, in a pandemic, people also are not wanting to stop and talk to strangers….

Because of COVID and the lack of in-store data collection, different techniques have emerged. The challenge was how to use technology to get better insight – online communities were used more, VR became a route to testing new layout and solutions. People are more willing and have more time to do surveys and focus groups, because they can do it from their sofas. These techniques offer more valuable insights and are easier to collect than virtual testing. They also look to be here to stay.

Research is descriptive and does not really identify growth opportunities. In order to drive growth, Ivan believes we need to get closer to the purchase decision. Finding more implicit and behavioural-based metrics unlocks more opportunities. Direct questioning explains the behaviour. This makes us truly understand what motivates shoppers and identify growth opportunities and helps retailers, manufacturers and shoppers achieve the ‘Triple Win’ which improves chances of activation of retail.

To listen to Ivan’s podcast in full, click here. Or, to discuss all things shopper research and find out more about our implicit solutions – from VR to online communities – you can reach out to Ivan Browne at