The Company Store

Retail ethnographers hunt the wily and elusive two-fisted, tight-walleted shopper

The science of observing shoppers' behavior--or "retail ethnography"--is nothing new. In fact, explains Dave Brennan, a professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas's College of Business, a century ago F.W. Woolworth watched shoppers as he set about selecting new locations for his five-and-dimes. Woolworth would examine existing stores, count the number of passersby, the number of people who stopped in, the number of people who bought merchandise, and the amount of the average sale. From that information he'd build a model, Brennan says, and use it to decide where to open new stores.

"It's the same type of technique they're using," Brennan says of Once Famous's research. "When you have lots and lots of stores and lots of markets, you have to systematize how you present the merchandise. You have to organize it in a way that's effective."

Whenever the store is doing research with a taping session, the staff puts a large sign in the doorway explaining that customers entering the store will be video- and audio-taped. (Legally, any concerns about Once Famous's surveillance can be easily dispensed with, explains Mike Steenson, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, because to prove an invasion of privacy, the law requires that there be a "reasonable expectation" of privacy in the first place. "If you're walking down the street, if you're walking through Marshall Field's, I don't think you have a reasonable expectation of privacy," Steenson says. "I can't draw a circle around myself and say, 'You can't invade that.'")

Boutique branding: Once Famous's skyway retail lab
Richard Fleischman
Boutique branding: Once Famous's skyway retail lab

Even when the store is not in taping mode (as it wasn't the day I bought my soap), the cheery sales associates are more than eager to explain its mission and method. And they may go so far as to ask customers followup questions or invite them to participate in a focus group, placing them in a position to opine, not simply act as they normally would.

But this creates another conundrum: If the idea is to catch customers' behavior in all its brutal honesty, doesn't announcing the experiment detract from the realism? "Ethically, I'd be a little more comfortable when people know," Periscope's Pounds muses. "But less comfortable with the outcome. All of a sudden you're on and expected to perform."

That's not a concern for FAME's Quest. "People tend to forget they're being filmed," she says. Quest explains that experiments have offered FAME interesting details on how people shop, including, she notes, the different ways in which men and women decide what to buy. ("Women find an object they like and visit it," Quest says. "Men look at how it's made, what's the construction.") The tests are usually set up to search for a specific piece of data, which clients can use in their own showrooms, in an effort to "build bridges" to customers and, ultimately, increase sales.

Though Quest won't discuss specific clients or tests, FAME's customer list includes such big-name companies as 3M, Foot Locker, Wilsons Leather, and Tupperware. Quest isn't sure exactly how many tests FAME has administered since it launched Once Famous, but she reports that clients have found the experiments useful. Some, she says, are even exploring the possibility of clearing out the entire store to test their own merchandise.

The cost of an experiment, Quest adds, could range from $15,000 to $100,000, depending on the scope of the project. For those fees, FAME designs and administers the test, then interprets the data. The video and audio tapes, she stresses, remain in FAME's possession.


Once Famous may offer an interesting snapshot of consumer behavior, but Periscope's Pounds doesn't believe the store's observations alone are enough to predict the attitudes of the masses. "You can say in this case, at this time, in this place, with these three shoppers, this is what happened," he says. "You can't necessarily say that in all cases, at all times, in this set of circumstances, this is what will happen."

And that, offers St. Thomas's Brennan, is because no matter how much information marketers collect, they'll never quite get inside the minds of shoppers. "It's useful to see patterns that emerge. But interpretation becomes very difficult," he says. "Knowing why people do what they do is still speculative."

Shoppers today are bombarded by marketing ploys from direct mail and telemarketing. Most recently, online retailers collect data about where you've shopped and what you've bought and besiege you with tailored pitches. The information is copious, and some of it redundant. Yet I'd be curious to know whether all that data about my shopping habits would really represent a true picture of me. Perhaps we are all so predictable in our buying patterns that a few market tests will tell retailers who we are and what we want. Or maybe, as I'd like to believe, our impulses change from time to time--regardless of whether we're being observed on camera.

"I don't know if this is the answer, but it's an attempt at an answer," says Pounds. "Maybe we'll be interested for ten seconds or ten years. That's the difference between a weak gimmick that passes into oblivion and a real innovation. Time allowed, it will be revealed for what it is."

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