Market Research: Shelf Impact

Packaging alone doesn't guarantee a successful retail product. What happens or doesn't happen on the shelf carries as much if not more weight in purchase decisions. "The direct impact of change [to shelf impression] on sales is more measurable than advertising and PR," declares Aaron Keller, managing principal of Capsule Lab.

"Most clients turn to research because their product has gotten stagnant or stale, not just because of anything the competition is doing," Keller says. "Having tried everything in promotions and advertising, they are looking for the next boost."

Retail usability research looks at the consumer decision-making process to understand how a purchase is made at shelf level. A number of firms specialize in studying, tracking, measuring, and analyzing the shelf impact of a product, but approaches used in the market today are quite varied.

Tachistiscopes, or "t-scopes," use timed exposure for evaluating packaging within the competitive shelf environment, a key element that increases its value along the realism dimension. However, t-scopes can inherit all of the problems associated with central location or lab-based testing. Multiple facilities might be needed to generate any kind of geographic dispersion. The lab environment can also offset much of the realism gained through the competitive context of the display simulation.

Eye-tracking, like t-scopes, tends to robustness in sample, making experimental designs possible, and it also utilizes a competitive context, which allows measurement of shelf impact. But, like t-scopes, eye-tracking relies on central location testing and, as such, has many of the same types of problems: They are subject to geographic constraints and interviewer biases, and can be affected by being in a laboratory-type environment.

Nuances of behavior
"We look at all the different pieces of information people take in from the retail display," explains Keller. "Research can pick out the little nuances of what works and what inhibits someone from buying. We test how much interaction there is with a product. Placement is also important, and that includes hot zones as well as uncomfortably low shelf positions."

Interestingly, signage has not proven to be a big factor. "Most of the surprises we encounter are specific to the category or client we're working with, but there is one that crosses many categories that is interesting—signs. People are less likely to use or even notice a client's signs or promotional displays. They go directly for the product," says Keller.

Perception Research Services' Eye-Tracking technique documents exactly what shoppers see—and ignore—as they first consider products in the shelf environment. This methodology measures the ability of packaging systems to consistently break through shelf clutter and generate consideration at retail. "We've worked with professors from Wharton to understand the connection between shelf visibility and sales," says Elliot Young, founder and chairman of Perception Research Services. Eye-Tracking is used in several hundred studies annually on a global basis, for marketers as diverse as Kraft Foods, Pfizer, PepsiCo, and Microsoft.

Life-size advantages
PRS studies are conducted in 12 mall-based facilities across the U.S. and in central research facilities around the world. Shoppers are recruited and screened by intercept in the mall, or they are "pre-cruited" to the facility. Each shopper is shown a series of store displays projected digitally on a life-size 5' x 5' screen.

As the shopper views each scene, a camera underneath the viewing screen records his or her exact focal point at 60 readings per second. The shopper spends as much time as she wishes, just as though shopping. When the coordinate readings are automatically tabulated and overlaid on each scene, PRS is able to document which products or messages the person saw—and which were ignored or quickly bypassed.

"PRS Eye-Tracking documents actual viewing behavior at the shelf, rather than relying on what shoppers say or recall," says Elliot Young. "Product categories are projected at a size that corresponds to a person's actual field of vision at the shelf and allows for packages to appear approximately life size. In addition, actual packages are photographed, which allows for accurate color fidelity. Web-based studies cannot accurately represent shelf clutter, given the inherent limitations of showing a 4' category within a 17" screen. In addition, package color inevitably varies from one monitor to the next."

With PRS Eye-Tracking, the shopper is in control of shelf viewing time, as at the store. Thus, PRS Eye-Tracking captures a packaging system's ability to generate consideration and hold attention within the time that a shopper chooses to spend at the shelf. "T-scope approaches rely upon a pre-determined shelf exposure time, say two seconds or five seconds, and thus are unable to measure a design system's ability to engage shoppers and hold their attention," says Young.

The PRS method does not rely on recall, but records what people actually see and what they ignore. Explains Elliot, "This is important, because recall is overwhelmingly biased by brand familiarity. If you show a shopper the detergent category, she is very likely to ‘guess' that Tide was there. In addition, recall is an essentially an advertising measure, based on the idea that marketers need to implant a message that will be acted upon later. This metric is far less relevant in a shopping context, where decisions are made at the shelf, and the challenge is to gain consideration and to close the sale at that moment."

Watching and talking
Capsule Lab developed a different approach to shelf impact studies, applying it to nail care products, candy, and computers. "We noticed our clients making decisions on how they would display product packaging without much consumer input," explains Keller.

Both one-on-one interviews and observation are used concurrently to listen to the consumer talk about their decision-making and note what they do, where they look, and how they interact with a display. The hybrid combination of interview and observation results in more robust and valid research, according to Keller. Most of time the shoppers are aware of the process, but sometimes hidden video is used. However, he feels there is more value to an interview, which can run from 30 minutes to two hours for a complex buy, and research projects usually run four to six months.

The company's 15 researchers are mostly freelancers, and Keller says an experienced researcher is essential for success. "We prefer to recruit people to come to a store and spend time in the aisle," Keller says. "We ask the shopper to complete tasks within the aisle and then talk aloud when they are going about their purchase. They just say what they are thinking as they do their shopping. Intercepts are less favored because they're intrusive, and what is the context?"

Keller describes Capsule research as uniquely results-focused, not exploratory. "It's research that can be immediately applied, and we show our clients how things can change and what the potential results could be. It gets to the behaviors happening at the aisle level and allows the client to better understand how their consumers are thinking relative to their space in the world. The method discovers holes and opportunities for the client to sell more products and increase consumer loyalty. The research has contributed to double-digit sales percentage increases for some of our clients."

Online research environment
Shelf Impact, Harris Interactive's patent pending, on-line research service, uses a combination of high-resolution graphics and timed exposure to assess a package's ability to break through competitive clutter and measure how shoppers locate packages on a shelf.

"Our first foray met with only limited success," explains Peter Gold, vice president Consumer Packaged Goods at Harris Interactive. "While we knew that packaging assessment was the right direction, our execution seem to lack several important elements, chief among them was some measure of shelf presence. Around the same time, a member of our business development team began a dialogue with the research director at major CPG company who was particularly interested creating a tool that was similar to a t-scope, except that it could be conducted online for less cost. There seemed to be a strong fit, so we decided to take the project on despite the heavy R&D investment."

Harris faced steep technological hurdles according to Gold. "We had to re-think the entire way we created graphics so even very small packages would have extraordinarily good resolution," says Gold. "In addition, since we were using time-exposure techniques that required calibration of up to a tenth of second, we needed to ensure that exposure was being viewed identically among both broadband and dialup users. The system wouldn't work if we tried to flash a screen, but instead had the screen slowly download in front of respondents."

The exposure duration is determined by a pre-test of an additional 120 respondents, one-third of which will see the image exposed for 0.5 seconds, .75 seconds, and 1.0 seconds. Harris will then recommend an exposure length based upon on whatever exposure yields a positive identification from approximately 15 percent of respondents during the pre-test.

"It is surprising that respondents have the ability to remember and find targets among shelf clutter when the exposure times are less than one second," says Gold, adding, "As we had hoped, our results paralleled those that our clients found using other, more expensive central location methodologies."

He explains that the Shelf Impact method can provide substantially larger samples more economically than any other methodology. "Our technique has a high degree of realism, as we provide a shelf context, and eliminate interviewer bias and the impact of group dynamics," says Gold.

What do clients know?
The client companies that request shelf impact research usually have their say on the front end. Clients work with PRS, for example, to determine the appropriate shelf planograms and contexts in which to show the products.

Capsule involves clients heavily in developing objectives and creating the tasks consumers will be asked to perform. Journals are an important part of the prep work. Senior executives in the client company are asked to keep in depth journals for a week to educate Capsule about objectives, what is going on with the brand, and their view of the world. "It's easier than getting everyone in one room at one time," says Keller. After that, clients can observe the process if they like, but they keep observers to a minimum to keep the disturbance to other shoppers down.

"This research immerses the client into the world of the consumer," Keller continues. "It's interesting because sometimes things the client hears things from the consumer that the client initially did not want to do, like consolidate SKUs. Consumers are quite discriminating, and it is amazing how much they see what is going on, when we get them to talk."

Carro Ford Weston has 25 years of marketing and communication experience and operates Carro Ford Communications in Lexington, Ky. Her award-winning marketing and writing skills have helped companies and nonprofits in a variety of industries. Contact Carro at