min read

I hope supermarkets are stalking me

by Sam Carter , 15.09.2016

Eighty years ago, Elton Mayo was looking at productivity of factory workers, changing group size and dynamics; everything from rules about talking to the type of lightbulbs in the ceiling. He discovered somewhat remarkably that under every change in condition productivity increased. The underlying insight being that individuals change their behavior when they know they are being observed, more succinctly known as the Hawthorne effect. This has always posed a challenge to market researchers. Consumers' innate desire to come across as more sensible, rational, better versions of themselves adds a layer of complexity to ethnography and accompanied journeys.

Technology in recent years has provided some alternative solutions, from Bluetooth beacons to CCTV based systems that can track individuals in stores. But what is missing from these solutions is the personal information angle; you may find out everything about the trip but are still in the dark about the consumer.

Getting more out of existing technology

One piece of current technology may hold an important role here, particularly for supermarkets. Increasingly common in large chains are the scan as you shop handheld devices. These allow shoppers to scan the barcodes of their items as they move around the store and pack them into their bags, allowing for a much quicker checkout experience and removing the hassle of packing your grocery cart just to have to unpack it at the register.


But these handheld devices could be doing so much more.

  • Journey mapping: Using built in GPS or a Bluetooth based sonar system these barcode scanning devices could reveal the footprint of shopper journeys around the store. Overlaid with purchases, they can show underused/visited areas of the store as well as bottleneck areas.
  • Layout optimization: By looking at the way consumers are moving around the store and in what order they purchase items, you could streamline the experience or encourage them to walk past particular sales areas to trigger a spontaneous purchase. By looking at the gaps between purchase points in aggregate, you could identify products that are difficult to find, i.e. those products that always have a long gap between their purchase and the previous item’s purchase.
  • Strategy: To be operated, most scanners require a loyalty card to be scanned first, so there is a whole host of back data to draw upon. Combining an understanding of consumption adjacencies (milk & cereal), purchase adjacencies (beer & diapers) and then shopper adjacencies (go to cucumbers then crisps) would give a powerful understanding of the what, how and why of consumer behavior and would allow for a hyper-personalized understanding but also an aggregate level of consumer segmentation.
  • Supplier relationship: Imagine the power of being able to demonstrate to suppliers exactly how many individuals walked past individual product displays or promotional touchpoints, enabling them to enrich sales data with a much more accurate picture of conversion rate and a view further up the funnel.

Of course this is all passive below-the-radar data collection and activation. In fact some grocery stores may be using the technology in this way already, it would be impossible from a consumer standpoint to tell.

The next step: Crossing into consumer consciousness

With these devices there is potential to push things further into the consumer consciousness.  Numerous studies have shown that personalized interactions are welcomed by consumers if they are relevant and timely. Demonstrating the consumer benefit would win over most customers. Consider the Ocado 'have you forgotten' function that monitors what the customer buys regularly and flags items that haven't been bought for awhile. This could be replicated in store particularly with a unique knowledge of an individual’s purchase adjacencies.

Personalize the shopping experience through relationship building

Scanning devices allow for a highly personalized shopping experience. Using a combination of location tracking in-store and loyalty back data, highly personalized content could be delivered at the exact moment that it will have most impact. Imagine if you know that I buy one of two brands of coffee and I am in the coffee aisle, you could push me a brand message from Kenco highlighting its 'Coffee vs. gangs' program when I am making that exact decision. This is the ultimate in having a conversation with consumers when they want to talk, which instantly raises the relevance and thus stickiness of any message.

Guiding the shopper through their purchase journey

You could completely revolutionize the shopper journey too; no more browsing around or trying to find a member of staff, when the device could tell me the aisle and location of an item that I am looking for. Or even if I entered the items I was looking for in advance, it could guide me on the optimum journey around the store to complete my shopping mission. Ikea have started trials in this area years ago with their partnership with Google Maps.

The Holy Grail: Integrating with smartphones

By the time you have got to this level of interaction the obvious question becomes, instead of building all this into their handheld devices, why not built a smartphone app for it? With the Smartphone already in the pockets and hands of most shoppers, would this not be the ideal tool to deliver all this content? This may seem like a natural next step technologically speaking, but it requires a leap in terms of the relationship between the store and the shopper. An invitation to cross the threshold into the personal realm of the smartphone is not something most consumers take lightly. But it could be done…

All of this leads me to the conclusion, which is that I hope supermarkets are stalking me. I hope they are making smart use of consumer data in stores; and through the scanning device and Clubcard that I am willing to use. I hope they are using this data to make decisions about layout and supplier relationships, and most of all I can't wait for the day they introduce directions into the device so that I can stop spending 20 minutes searching for risotto rice every time I go in.

Samuel Carter is an Innovation Consultant and can be reached at Samuel.Carter@gfk.com.