Getting to know all about you: An introduction to the Shop-Along research methodology

Shop-alongs are a type of qualitative research wherein a trained researcher conducts observational research and one-to-one, in-depth interviews in-situ, during consumers’ shopping trips. In essence, the researcher “shops along” with the person. This methodology allows the researcher to gather in-the-moment feedback from people about their motivations for choosing where, when, why, what, how, and with whom they shop, typically in a retail setting that sells goods and services.

Advantages: Rather than relying on questionnaires or interviews conducted after a shopping trip, conducting interviews while people are in-store removes the negative effects of lag time, such as forgetfulness, misremembering, and misinterpretations. Further, it ensures that even the smallest and seemingly insignificant moments will be recorded and acted on. Most importantly, shop-alongs increase the external validity of research conclusions because behaviours are observed in the actual environment, including other customers, employees, store sound systems, aisle arrangements, and more.

Disadvantages: As with every methodology, there are disadvantages. It is possible that the data could be negatively affected if people don’t feel comfortable shopping and talking with an interviewer. They might purchase things they otherwise would not, perhaps buying name-brand products over store products to avoid the perception of being cheap or unsophisticated. A highly skilled interviewer will help people feel at ease and minimize some of these problems. Finally, shop-alongs don’t work well for short shopping trips such as at convenience stores or gas stations.

When to use a shop-along

Though people make many purchase decisions in the days, hours, and minutes before beginning their shopping trip, purchase decisions are easily influenced once people enter a store. Behaviours and attitudes can be influenced by employees, aisle and shelf displays, and even other customers.  ”CanadianAs such, shop-alongs are ideal when the research objective is to:

  • Evaluate in-store navigation, or the ease of shopping and finding items
  • Evaluate shelf and store design
  • Identify purchase triggers
  • Understand in-store and in-aisle behaviors
  • Understand the effects of in-store sampling and trial
  • Understand the effects of the physical environment, e.g., displays or customer service
  • Understand the effects of the interpersonal environment, e.g., employees or customers

Discussion Topics

During the shop-along, the researcher will use a discussion guide to focus a conversation of mostly open-ended questions on each shopper’s thoughts, emotions, influences, motivations, and behaviours. Conversions could be based on many different areas depending on the research objectives:

  • Process: planning the trip, planning the store strategy
  • Product: package shapes, sizes, colours; labeling; pricing; accessibility
  • Placement: placement in the store; store layout and lighting; maneuvering through the store; cleanliness; accessibility of aisles, shelves, change rooms, cashiers
  • Customer experience: availability, helpfulness, and politeness of employees
  • Marketing: displays, shelving, signage, coupon offerings

Recruiting participants

Participants are typically recruited in one of two ways.

  1. Access Panels: People who have previously agreed to participate in research may be invited to participate based on demographic and/or product information they’ve shared with the panel. Access panels are often preferred when very specific target groups are required, perhaps competitive brand users, or people who have rare demographic characteristics. The researcher would then plan to meet the selected participants at the designated location.
  2. On-site intercepts: The research company may recruit people at the location, perhaps at a mall or outside the store of interest. This method works well when the targeting criteria aren’t strict and when it is important that the participant not be given time to plan for a trip with a researcher.

In either case, people would be carefully screened to ensure they meet the targeting criteria. An incentive would be offered after the trip was completed, possibly cash, but often gift cards that could be redeemed either online or offline.

Recording Data

As part of screening, the researcher would obtain permission from each shopper to be recorded on audio and/or video. To ensure the researcher is focused on the shopper and their experiences, shop-alongs are often conducted with an assistant whose role it is to subtly film and record the shopping journey and environment. Small devices work well as they won’t draw attention to the researcher and they won’t disrupt or disturb other shoppers. Naturally, recordings should only be conducted with permission of the establishment to avoid raising security concerns.

In addition to obtaining in-situ video, the researcher should plan to conduct a short, summary interview after the shop-along is complete. This will give the shopper an opportunity to share their most important opinions and emotions in a more coherent way.

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