Large retailers offer locations from coast to coast, and, though differences exist, a customer in San Diego is generally going to find that Retailer A has the same look, feel, and product assortment that a customer in New Orleans finds at his/her local Retailer A location. But, do these two customers shop the same way? Do they have the same expectations? Are they looking for the same things? How can we find out?
Though the intellectual battle of nature versus nurture rages on, there is no doubt that environment and culture have their influence. There is also no doubt that there is considerable environmental and cultural variation as one moves from one coast to the other. This variation likely has widespread impact. It likely even impacts how people shop.
In recent years, a research method has worked its way into the marketing research arena that offers an innovative answer to the “how can we find out” question – ethnography, technically the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures. Borrowed from anthropology, and unlike the opinion survey or the focus group, ethnographic marketing research puts the researcher in the “shoes” of the consumer/customer where he/she can see firsthand what the customer experiences when actually encountering the product, service or shopping experience of interest.
In ethnographic research, the researcher enters the customer’s world. The customer is directly observed as he/she engages in the behavior being studied. The key is that the customer’s behavior guides the research process in a natural environment rather that being guided by the researcher on the phone, at a keyboard, or in a group. Ethnographic research can take place anywhere – in the home, the car, the movie theater (assuming everyone keeps their voices down), and even the retail store. This latter venue offers some particularly intriguing opportunities.
An ethnographic study of shopping habits, or “shop along,” involves a researcher accompanying a customer on a shopping trip. The researcher and customer meet up at the entrance of the store and do not separate until the trip is over. In between, the researcher observes and records everything the shopper does: What sections of the store he/she visits and in what order; What sections he/she passes by; What products he/she picks up from the he/shelves and looks at and which ones he/she ignores; What he/she says along the way; And importantly, what he/she buys.
Of course, the researcher need not remain silent throughout the voyage. There are numerous “why” questions that can be asked along the way. Unlike other methods, however, the ethnographic method allows observation of the customer to drive the questions, increasing their relevance and the meaningfulness of the answers. In addition, it is not only the customers’ specific shopping behaviors that can be observed. Does the customer’s mood change? Does he/she get frustrated? Why? Does he/she get hungry? If so, is there a snack bar, and does he/she visit it? The possibilities are endless.
Ethnographic marketing research offers the opportunity not only for general insights into the customers’ mind but also insight into the impact of the cultural context. Differences in shopping habits, preferences, and even emotional responses can be directly observed as they occur in venues strategically picked for study around the country.
Of course, the usual limitation warnings of qualitative research apply; however, used properly ethnographic research offers insights unavailable from any other method and should be given consideration whenever it is appropriate to the question at hand.