Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Supermarket Research

The first proper job I had was in market research. It was in the analytical department of Atkinson Statistics, which is only ironic if you happen to know that I left school having failed O level maths three times. Now that is statistically significant, a phrase which I was to learn during my year or so of numerical analysis of the shopping habits of thousands of respondents. Induction into the company was pretty basic, involving only cursory introductions to my desk, my comptometer and my three office colleagues, so I was left guessing as to the overall purpose of the Company and my role within it.
When it comes down to it, of course, market research is not difficult to comprehend. Essentially it is a matter of watching people and their buying habits, then tailoring products and environments accordingly to encourage them to spend more. I discovered recently, however, that the methods employed have become a little more sophisticated since last I was directly involved.
It was a quiet afternoon in Waitrose, and I had completed my shopping mission, when I was approached, very politely, by a young man who seemed desperate to find an accomplice for his particular mission, which turned out to be market research of the hi-tech variety. Being curious, as well as at a loose end, I agreed to cooperate by wearing some goggles which were wired up to a video recorder, so that everything I looked at was recorded as if my eyes were the camera. He sent me off to buy tea, coffee, biscuits and milk. You have probably guessed that the point of this was to see what I made of the layout of the shop, and which brands attracted my eye, so that they could feed this information back to Waitrose to improve my shopping experience.
At the end, we watched the recording on a little screen in the Waitrose cafe, and the researchers could not conceal their consternation. Where they had expected to see me gently browse through the goodies lined up enticingly on the shelves, what they saw instead was the equivalent of a heat-seeking missile homing in on its targets with unerring precision. They seemed equally surprised by my answers to their queries. “Well, I only buy loose leaf tea – Assam for the mornings, and Darjeeling for the afternoons. I prefer Ethiopian coffee, if I can get it. I only buy full fat milk, and I never buy biscuits unless obliged to do so, when I will always go for the same type”. None of this takes very long, or is very complicated, except and unless you are unfamiliar with the shop, and I got the impression that they were disappointed somehow, and that they may have felt a little cheated as they handed over the £40 “thankyou” that had been promised.
I suppose that my age, gender and ethnic origin will all be fed into the programme, along with the tea and biscuit brands I chose. I can only hope, for my own sake, that this proves to be statistically significant to Waitrose, otherwise I shall be taking my custom elsewhere.

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