Digital tools offer new clues into shopper behavior.
have long put effort into researching high-involvement and expensive purchases like cars and electronics before heading to the store. Suddenly, because of technology, it is now also worth the “effort” to research toothpaste, canned tomatoes and laundry detergent. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than one-fifth of shoppers research food and beverages online, nearly one-third research pet products and 39 percent research baby products. Almost two-thirds (62%) say they search for deals online before at least half of their shopping trips. Ryan Partnership’s multi-year study of digital shopping confirms the widespread — and still growing — use of digital tools to gather information, select retailers and make brand decisions well before the shopper ever sees a product on the shelf. In fact, this past month, 58 percent of the 5,000 shoppers in our survey told us they are more likely than a year ago to “typically” decide what they want before visiting a store. To do this, their usage of all kinds of digital shopping tools is growing. The increased availability of information on mobile devices has been a strong driver in the growth of digital tool adoption for shopping — the tools are simply more useful when they are available whenever and wherever people need them. Shoppers in our study overwhelmingly reported that they use these tools before they get to the store shelf. In many cases this pre-store activity is having an impact on the decisions they make about where they shop, not just what they buy. Shoppers also report using mobile digital tools more and more while at the store as an adjunct to the information they find in the store. These tools are having a real impact on people’s in-store shopping behavior, as well: Respondents report that they make unplanned purchases and buy new products and brands as a result of the information digital mobile tools provide for them. What does all this mean for shopperinsights professionals? When people use these shopping tools, they generate a trail of data that is employed routinely by web-analytics teams to optimize brands’ and retailers’ websites and other digital assets. However, it can also be used for other means — in particular, understanding in broader terms how people shop for various categories and brands, how they shop in different retail channels and banners, and some of the things that are motivating those behaviors. There has been heated debate in our field in recent years about the appropriateness of using “social market research” in place of traditional quantitative and qualitative shopper research techniques. In fact, the debate is something of a red herring. It would be foolish to ignore this new source of data that, when approached knowledgeably and responsibly, can provide insights we may not be able to gather any other way. It is also possible to incorporate this information into our insight-generation process without abandoning more direct types of shopper research. The positives of using social research platforms for shopper insights are that they are quite easy to access, reasonably priced, and fast (i.e., we can get information in real time) compared to many traditional research tools. They also have the advantage that they provide information that is not biased by shoppers’ ability or willingness to recall or recount their activities — and this is a major positive. The key negative is that it can involve quite a bit of persistence, creativity and imagination to mine social data to glean broader insights about the overall shopping experience. As a result, there is the possibility of misinterpretation, and the dollar savings can be offset to varying degrees by the time investment. We find that using social research techniques to begin our investigation of shopper behaviors and motivations is a great way to maximize the positive and minimize the negative. The ability to document behavior that shoppers may not have been able or willing to tell us is a strong reason to take a look at what can be learned from social research platforms. After the initial exploration, we often have questions or hypotheses about shoppers that we would not have generated on our own. That is the time to turn to some of the more traditional