University of Tennessee

Let’s Go Shopping

January 14, 2014

By Lola Alapo
This article was reprinted from Quest magazine.

Ever been embarrassed to buy hemorrhoid ointment, tampons, adult diapers, or other personal hygiene products at the store? Chances are you have. Did you wind up buying other products you really didn’t need in an attempt to distract attention from your awkward purchase? Research shows you probably did.

Dan Flint is a pioneer in the growing field of shopper marketing research. As the Regal Entertainment Group Professor of Business in UT’s Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management, he is an expert on how people shop.

With a weakened economy and slim profit margins, retailers and manufacturers are trying to better understand shopping behavior—how people navigate stores, what catches their eye, and what else they purchase to mask other products—to figure out ways to entice shoppers to buy more or look just a few seconds longer at their goods. The longer a shopper lingers, the greater the chance of a purchase.

“We spend a lot of time looking inside people’s heads,” Flint says. “We’re learning a lot about the differences between the way men’s and women’s brains process information. Shopper marketing is not about marketing in-store versus out-of-store. It’s about the shopper’s mindset and focusing on people when they’re in shopping mode.”

Building on Behavior

Do you usually make a list before you go to the grocery store? If so, you probably come home with more than you planned. “About 50 to 70 percent of consumer goods people buy are choices made in stores—not what’s on their shopping list,” Flint says. Retailers and manufacturers are working to capitalize on that spontaneous decision process even as they vie with competitors to win shoppers’ loyalty.

“Brands are becoming more serious about doing retailer-specific research and aligning marketing strategic plans to assist retailers in differentiating from their competition,” he says.

In-store demos and interactive digital displays are just some of the innovative methods of gathering insights on shoppers and developing integrated marketing strategies. The focus then becomes effectively executing those plans and measuring the return on investment.

To address the challenges and find potential solutions in this arena, business leaders have turned to UT’s Shopper Marketing Forum—the first of its kind in the nation. “It’s a way to pull together companies around a common topic,” says Flint, who launched the forum in 2009 and serves as its director.

Science to the Rescue

Where the business world is falling short, the academic world is making up the difference. Extensive research in neurology, psychology, social psychology, behavioral economics, strategy, web analytics, business analytics, and supply chain management can be tapped to more efficiently market products to the proper demographic. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Scientists have connected shoppers to electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to capture physiological effects of certain products. They’ve tracked how shoppers interpret visual product cues through the use of eye tracking goggles. Neurologists have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other equipment to determine which part of the brain shoppers use when viewing a brand.

Researchers have shopped alongside, interviewed, and video-recorded thousands of shoppers. The results of these various studies have driven retailers and brand manufacturers to alter their approach on virtually everything, even down to the type of shelving used in stores.

“Experience and simple human evolution teaches us that bumping into the sharp edge of a desk or shelf hurts, so people tend to unconsciously avoid them,” Flint says. “But if we round the corners of the end of an aisle display, more shoppers tend to go down the aisle.”

Some retailers are now setting up displays made of wood because “research shows that wood makes you feel calmer,” Flint says. “Retailers want to make you feel calmer so you slow down. When you slow down, they have two more seconds of your time; time they can use to communicate with you.”

The research also influences the design of advertisements.

“Women will typically respond more to social images such as smiling faces, multiple people in a scene, and close-up shots,” Flint says. “Men, on the other hand, will respond to structure and power. Men will project an end state and women will project themselves into a scenario.”

More than Numbers

Many retailers have turned to companies that use mathematical modeling and business analytics to dissect data and tell them how they’re faring against their competitors.

Even as retailers and brand manufacturers look to grow their businesses, many are still not aware of, or are not effectively using, scientific research. Conversely, some academics are conducting research while remaining unaware of some of the major issues shopper marketing managers are facing.

“We want to bridge the gap between industry and academia,” Flint says. “The goal is to make sure academic research is relevant and to get businesses to incorporate the research.”

In the meantime, Flint continues his contributions to the realm of shopper marketing. He and a colleague recently examined what shoppers do when they purchase items that make them uncomfortable, such as condoms, pregnancy kits, and suppositories. They found the college students in the study would often buy inexpensive items such as a magazine or gum to help conceal those types of purchases.

Flint says this behavior mirrors that of most shoppers and it’s exactly what the merchants want—to sell more stuff. So next time you go shopping, your shame might wind up adding to some company’s bottom line.