From the customer’s perspective . . .

“But they were in some of my worse stores. We were shorthanded and the shelves were low on inventory. Why didn’t you let me pick the stores?” These were the exact words of the COO at a major retailer as I reported on a recent mobile shop along. All he could see was how poorly this reflected on him and his team. He did not understand the power this gave him to make things right.

In the past, this retailer relied on in-store intercepts or traditional shop-alongs that were planned well in advance. Not too surprising, they tended to occur in top performing stores, which had been recently remodeled, and had a stellar team of sales associates. Study results were always outstanding – indicating that operations was doing an excellent job. The problem is, sales are down, and no one can pinpoint why. The weekly tracking study we are running keeps indicating some in-store issues, but this was in complete contradiction with the in-store research. It took some effort, but I convinced senior management that they needed an unbiased measure of the in-store experience, and suggested mobile shop-alongs.

We geo-fenced each of their stores, designed and programmed a mobile-based survey, and within a week, we had intercepted and surveyed 250 of their customers. All unbeknownst to the store personnel. What we found was both an eyeful and an earful. Intentionally keeping the survey somewhat unstructured, customers told us about areas of the store that had never been addressed in past research. They provided pictures of empty shelves and aisles cluttered with boxes. An astounding 40% left the store without making a purchase. Not only did they tell us why they didn’t make a purchase – they also told us what they did instead. This gave us a good picture of the purchase path, whether it included our client’s store or not. And we did happen to shop some stellar stores, making it easy for us to contrast a good and bad customer experience.

While this research led to the comments mentioned above, once operations realized this was a true snapshot of their customer’s shopping experience, they stepped into action to correct things. We will be back in the stores with another mobile shop-along soon. And once again, they will not know which stores might or might not be shopped.

This example was for a retailer, but we have also seen great success with using mobile shop-alongs for packaged goods, restaurants, and other customer facing industries. I would love to hear about your experience with such shop-alongs.

Ken Roberts is President of San Francisco based Cooper Roberts Research, a full service marketing research firm.

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