How to Use Ethnography to Drive Retail Marketing Decisions

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Identifying what consumers want from a retail experience can be daunting. The easiest and most obvious solution is to simply ask them, but this isn’t always the best approach. It presumes that people know what they want in the first place, which isn’t always the case. When researchers ask customers specific questions about their retail experience, they usually do so in a completely unrelated environment, such as a conference room or design lab. External factors that can affect their experience, such as children, mobile phones, or shopping baskets, are not present, which may influence their impression of a typical store visit. And, of course, there’s always the question of whether or not researchers can trust that participants actually do the things they say they do.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to find out how customers really behave when they step out to the store: retail ethnography.

Ethnography is an outgrowth of anthropology that focuses on studying the customs and habits of people and cultures in their natural environment. Rather than asking people what they do or removing them from their everyday context, ethnographers imbed themselves within the subject’s environment and observe to better understand the factors influencing their behavior.

The Department Store is a Foreign Country…

The historian L.P. Harley famously wrote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This sentiment might easily be applied to the modern shopping mall or department store.

It may seem strange to think of a retail setting as a foreign country, but the concept actually makes a lot of sense. People behave differently in a retail environment than they behave in the comfort of their homes. There are unspoken norms and social mores that everyone tacitly agrees to follow: they don’t talk too loudly, they dress a certain way, they respect other shoppers’ personal space, and so forth. They may not be aware of these behavioral norms, even if asked about them. With a lifetime of experience in these retail environments, people have a naturalized view of them.

If pressed on why they act the way they do, they might even struggle to answer because the explanation seems so obvious to them that words can’t really do it justice (leading to answers like “That’s the way things are” or “It’s just what you do.”). When these “rules” are broken, the disruption makes everyone uncomfortable and uncertain about how to respond, much the same way that a church congregation might react if someone started shouting at the pastor.

In order to provide a better customer experience across all touchpoints, UX teams need to get to the bottom of these behaviors, identifying how people behave and understanding the motivations behind their actions.

Ethnography is an outgrowth of anthropology that focuses on studying the customs and habits of people and cultures in their natural environment

…But You Can Go There.

When applied to the retail environment, ethnography has the potential to uncover valuable insights about how consumers make decisions. By immersing themselves in the retail setting, UX researchers can observe and capture emotional behavior, getting a first hand look at what people “actually” do while they’re shopping.

Every aspect of the store environment can be factored into these observations. Following the main design thinking tenants of questioning everything, ethnographic research takes every possible external factor into consideration. Noting how customers react to different types of tables, product displays, shopping carts, or shelf layouts can provide tremendous insight into which variables have the biggest impact on the customer experience.

Types of Retail Ethnography

There are a few different ways of approaching ethnographic research in a retail environment. Each one has the ability to capture different aspects of the customer experience, but due to their nature, they can’t really be used interchangeably. Researchers must decide ahead of time which approach they want to utilize for different groups of shoppers they want to target. Fortunately, ethnographic research generally does not require a large sample size to generate meaningful insights.

  • In-Store Observations: In this “classic” form of imbedded ethnography, researchers observe customers unobtrusively as they browse the store and make purchases. Ideally, these people will not even know they’re being watched because there is a chance they might act differently if they know someone is observing them. This form of research is limited, however, because it relies upon the observer’s interpretation of actions and behaviors.
  • Intercepts: A more direct approach, this form of research takes place primarily at or after the point of purchase. When a customer has completed their shopping experience, researchers ask them questions about why they made the decisions they did. For instance, why did they purchase one item and not another, why did they not visit some areas of the store, or what difficulties did they encounter during their visit? While this approach has some of the same problems associated with focus group questioning in that it relies upon people to give honest and accurate answers, it does at least take place in a natural environment.
  • Shop-Alongs: This tactic combines observation with direct questioning by having UX researchers accompany shoppers as they engage with the retail environment. One of the big advantages to this method is that researchers don’t have to guess why someone makes a purchase decision or behaves in a particular way; they can simply ask. This can bring plenty of additional information to light, oftentimes revealing decision-influencing factors the researcher might never deduce from observation. Of course, this approach gives the customer a great deal of power to shape their own narrative and may provide explanations they think the researcher wants to hear.

Armed with the insights gained from ongoing ethnographic research, UX designers can begin rethinking every aspect of the retail experience. Studying customers in their “natural” environment makes it easier to design marketing strategies that will cater to their behaviors and help them to meet their needs with various products and services. Combined with other design thinking principles, retail ethnography is a valuable tool in developing and delivering a superior customer experience.

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