4 Key Points About Retail Ethnography

Ethnography is a form of market research where observers watch consumers interact with products in a natural setting. One of the more common locations for ethnography research is in a retail setting. Ethnography is made easy in this setting typically because stores already have cameras and observational tools as part of their data analytics and loss prevention software programs.

Thinking about using retail ethnography to help you understand your shopper experience at your store? The observational data and information you collect can help with shopper pathing, improving the customer experience (CX), and many other benefits.

4 Key Points About Retail Ethnography

Ethnography in market research is the practice of observing customers in their natural shopping experience, retail environment, home environment, or business environment as they shop or interact with products.

Point 1: Observational research eliminates bias

Because ethnographic research is purely observational, most participants do not realize they are being observed as part of a study. They enter the retail location and shop as they normally would while analysts or the research team watches and take notes about the experience.

With the participants unknowingly participating, their behavior is not impacted in any way which is always a concern with unnatural settings for market research like answering questions on a laptop for an online survey or sitting in a focus group room with a one-way mirror. This is one of the largest advantages and arguments for using ethnography.

Point 2: Determine goals prior to ethnography research

Much like any market research project, you first need to determine your goals before jumping into fieldwork. Without discussing priorities and what you want to learn from the ethnography research it's a bit like scrambling together a survey and launching it in the field without first understanding what you want the report to tell your team at the end of the day.

Determine your goals. It might be understanding how shoppers engage with end caps. Or how shoppers engage with a new display in the store. Whatever you want to learn more about take notes and document exactly what you are looking for.

Did the shopper check their phone while at the display?

Did they look confused by the offering?

Were they looking for help from a customer service associate?

Point 3: Try to understand patterns and trends

Since you do not have the opportunity to talk with shoppers and intercept them to ask questions, you have to rely on your keen observations to understand commonalities and trends with ethnography.

Are shoppers more engaging when entering the display from the left or the right?

Do they pick up a product off the shelf and review it?

What are they reading on the product labeling?

Is this shopper an outlier or are they displaying commonalities with other shoppers?

Big data and shopper analytics are often paired with observational and qualitative takeaways from an ethnography market research project. The big data can point to routes shoppers take in the store, purchase patterns, and other key data points. When combined with observational takeaways it can provide the retail location with a comprehensive overview of the shopper experience.

Point 4: Supplement ethnography with primary research

As a market research company, we always recommend pairing ethnographical data with primary market research of some kind. In terms of observational research, methodologies like intercepts and shop-alongs pair well with goals.

Intercept surveys are completed via tablet in the store and retail environment. These surveys can be self-administered by the customer or a researcher can be staffed on-site to ask questions to shoppers.

Shop-alongs are a form of market research where a researcher accompanies a shopper as they move around the store. Shop-alongs are part observational research and part primary research. During certain portions of the shopper experience, the researcher asks questions and has the shopper think out loud as they navigate the store.


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