The Comprehensive Guide to Conducting a Shop-Along in 2022

person with red shirt pushing a shopping cart in a grocery store

Retailers are in constant competition for consumer attention.

With numerous products and services that are comparable and similar on multiple levels, every company wants consumers to buy their product or service to beat their competitors

How does a company, brand, product, or service stand out against the competition? They need to effectively market to their ideal customer by grabbing their attention and guiding them to a buying decision.

With roughly 70% of consumer shopping contributing to economic activity, measuring who shops where is key in understanding this continuously growing industry. 

A great market research option for collecting this type of information is by conducting a shop-along.

In this comprehensive guide, Drive Research will answer:

Interesting in conducting a shop-along with the help of our market research company? Contact Drive Research today to discuss your project objectives and goals. 

What is a shop-along?

There are a variety of factors that influence the way customers shop and what leads them to purchase.

Market research is used to help companies understand their customer on a deep level, and the information market research provides is later used to create effective marketing campaigns.

Specifically, a shop-along is a form of market research where an interviewer accompanies a consumer while they browse and shop for items, asking questions as the experience moves along.

Recently, statistics show that 49% of online shoppers wish they could try out a product, something that can’t be done on a website. With shop-alongs, consumers are able to share valuable insight into item details–and observe or test products in real-time.

The interviewer greets the recruited shopper at the door or recruits participants at the door for the market research. This allows organizations to collect in-the-moment feedback. 

Much like in-home usage tests (IHUTs), shop-alongs are an excellent methodology for collecting real-time and point-of-purchase (POP) market research. Shop-alongs can be conducted in either one-on-one or small group settings.

💡 The Key Takeaway: A shop-along gathers important feedback from consumers as they shop through a store. An interviewer will accompany the participant through the store, asking relevant questions as they go.

Is a shop-along qualitative or quantitative market research?

A shop-along project could be designed for both qualitative and quantitative objectives. It largely depends on the number of shop-alongs that take place during the entirety of the project.

If you are conducting over 50 or 100 shop-alongs across the country, you may be entering closer to the quantitative territory.

However, if you are conducting 8 shop-alongs at a local grocery store, your findings will be exploratory and subjective. This would be more closely associated with a qualitative study.

Qualitative shop-alongs

This form of market research is far more intimate than quantitative, which is designated for larger pools of research.

Considered the more exploratory of these two methods, qualitative research will gather in-depth feedback from focus groups (more on them and how they relate to shop-alongs later), in-depth interviews, or in our case, shop-alongs. 

Since qualitative research is ideal for smaller participant groups, this allows shop-alongs to be detail-focused. The chance for exploratory research here is far higher, and consumer thoughts can be truly analyzed. 

With research style, participants can be asked to delve deeper into the thought process behind a buying experience. 

Certain ideas that can be explored are: 

  • Why the participant chooses to buy a product 
  • What are the participant’s overall thoughts on the shopping experience 
  • How the participant feels about the store layout

Quantitative shop-alongs

When conducting over 50 shop-alongs, we get into the quantitative territory. This type of market research methodology is far more large-scale than qualitative. While qualitative research is designed to explore, quantitative is designed to measure. 

Quantitative research relies less on participant experience and more on statistical value.

More emphasis will be placed on the overall statistics found through shop-alongs, versus exploratory feedback as with qualitative. Due to their data-centric nature, quantitative shop-alongs will focus less on fine details and more on the big picture.

Still sure which path to choose? Do you want to explore or measure? Read our blog, Choosing a Market Research Methodology post to help you decide.

💡 The Key Takeaway: Shop-along market research can be both qualitative and quantitative. With qualitative research, you’ll receive more detailed feedback from participants. When using quantitative, you’ll focus on obtaining enhanced data insight. 

What are the benefits of shop-alongs?

While there are many market research options for retail and grocery stores, shop-alongs are one of the most popular. 

This is mainly because these studies work best if the consumer is planning on spending some time in the store as part of a bigger experience.

Consider the value of conducting a shop-along with a grocery shopper who spends 30 minutes buying groceries and housewares.

This is far more powerful than trying to run shop-alongs at a local gas station, where shoppers run in to pick up beef jerky and a Mountain Dew after filling up their tank.

One of the largest benefits of shop-along market research is the ability to ask questions as consumers pick and choose products.

The in-the-moment nature of the research allows you to pick their brain and explore the psychology of decision-making as it is unfolding.

💡 The Key Takeaway: A shopping survey for retail research lets participants share detailed feedback about their experience as a consumer. The in-person nature of this research allows for a unique experience with both the buyer and interviewer. 

How does a shop-along project work?

All shop-along projects work a little differently. Each one has its own unique set of circumstances that drive the process and outcomes.

However, like many market research projects, they follow a similar process. The process typically involves a kickoff meeting, set up, fieldwork, and then analysis and reporting.

Step 1: Kickoff meeting 🤝

Much like any market research project, conducting a shop-along starts with a kickoff meeting between the client and the research company.

The kickoff meeting will help both parties comprehend objectives and expectations from the market research. Understanding these will ensure the project gets off to the right start.

A kickoff discussion will guide the next steps in both the recruit and shop-along interview guide design.

Step 2: Determine participant criteria ☑️

The next step of a shop-along project is to determine who to recruit for the shop-alongs. Recruitment needs to review the type(s) of demographics you'd like to conduct research with.

This can range to include:

  • Genders
  • Ages
  • Incomes
  • Types of products purchased
  • Types of stores visited
  • Other recruitment criteria

Step 3: Choosing locations 📍

Locations of stores can also assist with the type(s) of demographics you are looking to study.

For instance, cities in Upstate New York like Syracuse, Rochester, and Albany are top test markets in the United States because of their ability to mirror the demographics of the country.

So, if you are looking to launch a product nationally, test marketing it in Upstate New York will give you a realistic idea of demand and appeal.

These Upstate New York markets also have isolated media markets and affordable advertising and marketing, which all add up to an ideal test market.

Step 4: Begin Recruit 🔎

If you choose to pre-recruit participants for the shop-along, you'll need to do this before the planned dates for the shop-alongs.

For example, this would involve your market research company using phone calls, an online panel, or social media to recruit shoppers to come to Store ABC on Date D at Time E for a 30-minute shop-along.

Another option if you have more flexibility with on-site shop-alongs is to manage the recruit at the door as participants walk into the store.

Here, you run them through a short screener and see if they qualify to participate in the shop-along. If so, you conduct the project recruitment on the spot. If not, they would continue into the store as normal.

Recommended Reading: Why Sourcing Research Participants Through Facebook is Better Than a Panel


Step 5: Shop-along Guide Design 📔

This is the core deliverable of the shop-along project outside of the report. The shop-along guide is used by the interviewer as he or she walks around the store with the consumer as they shop.

The guide lists out all of the questions and conversations that need to happen to address the key objectives and marketing research. The shop-along guide is the most important step in the process.

A strong guide equals strong results.

You can have a strong guide but deliver a poor report but you cannot deliver a good report without a strong guide. The effort that goes into the planning and questions impacts the results that come out.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Step 6: Fieldwork 🛒

This step is when the interviewers complete the shop-alongs. The shop-along fieldwork includes both features of an in-depth interview (IDI) as well as ethnography research.

In a shop-along, you want to promote as natural of a shopping experience as possible.

Many times during the shopping experience, the interviewer should drop back during the non-critical aisles or portions to give the respondent some room to breathe and relax.

Step 7: Analysis and Reporting 📊

The final step is to review all of the feedback and data from the shop-alongs.

In some situations, it may make sense to digitally record the shop-alongs so the interviewer can focus his or her full attention on the interviewee.

This avoids the interviewer from having to take voracious notes and instead listen to the feedback and probe when necessary.

💡 The Key Takeaway: A number of essential steps go into conducting a shop along. From the kickoff meeting to participant recruitment to guide design, shop-alongs run like a well-oiled machine and need to be carefully planned from start to finish.

How to recruit participants for a shop-along?

The best way to explain the recruitment process for shop-along market research is with a real-world example.

Our market research company recently worked with a grocery store in New York to conduct several shop-alongs in group settings. 

We’ll outline the step-by-step process of this project below.

Project Overview 💡

A grocery store was looking to hire a market research company for a consumer recruitment project. The supermarket was looking to conduct 4 quad shop-along groups in the Upstate New York area.

A goal of 20 consumers would be recruited for the project by our grocery market research firm, while the client managed all facilitation for the shop-alongs.

During the project kick-off meeting, the supermarket client discussed what type of shoppers they would like to participate in the shop-along.

Expected targeting criteria for the recruitment included:

  • A mix of primary and secondary shoppers
  • Primary or shared decision-makers for household groceries
  • Shop for groceries at least once every two weeks
  • Regularly purchase meat and/or seafood at least once every two weeks
  • Have purchased meat and/or seafood from the specific supermarket location at least once in the past month
  • Approximately ages 25 to 65
  • Household income of $50,000 or more, or $35,000 or more if single
  • A mix of genders, family situations, and ethnicities

Recruiting Consumers for the Shop-Along

One of the services our grocery market research company specializes in is qualitative recruiting. Our experts follow a streamlined process to effectively deliver trusted and qualified participants for our clients.

Below is the process Drive Research follows when recruiting consumers for shop-alongs.

Step #1: Screener Survey

Based on the recruitment criteria, Drive Research creates an online screener survey. A screener survey is a tool we use to pre-qualify potential participants.

For this supermarket shop-along, the recruitment screener asked questions such as:

  • What grocery store would you consider as your primary supermarket?
  • What grocery store would consider as your secondary supermarket?
  • How often do you purchase meat in any given week?
  • How often do you purchase seafood in any given week?
  • When was the last time you purchased meat or seafood from [CLIENT]?
  • Would you consider purchasing meat or seafood from [CLIENT]?

Step #2: Screener Survey Fieldwork

The screener was drafted, approved by the supermarket client, and programmed into our online survey platform. The screener survey was then launched into fieldwork.

The process to recruit participants with the online screener primarily relied on paid randomized social media ads to a specific mile radius geography around the grocery store.

Step #3: Re-screen Phone Calls

Those who responded to the social media ad, completed the survey, and qualified for the shop-along received a re-screening and confirmation call to ask additional questions.

Our recruitment team decided if they would in fact be a good fit for the grocery store market research study. If so, the participant was placed in their corresponding quad shop-along group.

Step #4: Confirming Participation

All qualified consumers received numerous messages to confirm their participation in the shop-along. This included:

  • A confirmation email asking them to reply, “yes”
  • A reminder phone call one to two days before the shop-along
  • A reminder text the day of the supermarket research study

Timeline for shop-along recruitment ⏰

Our market research company requested a total of 2 to 3 weeks for the recruit. This allows ample time to build a pre-screened audience and match the recruitment mix requests of the supermarket ahead of the shop-alongs taking place.

While this is the recommendation of Drive Research, we can also complete a qualitative recruitment project in as little as one week if necessary.

As for the length of the shop-along, each quad shop-along lasted approximately 90 minutes.

Consumers who participated in the grocery market research project received a $125 reward on-site paid for by the client upon completion.

💡 The Key Takeaway: Retail market research can take anywhere from one to three weeks, typically. Participant confirmation, re-screening calls, and online screener surveys are all part of recruiting qualified participants. 

Why choose a shop-along other over methodologies? 

Another common form of retail market research is focus groups. This type of study involves gathering a group of participants together to engage in a guided discussion about a product, service, or concept.

Although focus groups are popular and beneficial, a shop-along is a unique way to conduct research and provides different insights for a company, brand, or product.

A shop-along study is a type of ethnographic research that involves the researcher (literally) “shopping along” with a research participant and asking questions during a real-life shopping experience. 

The purpose of a shop-along is to uncover thoughts, influences, preferences, and motivations when customers are shopping for a product.

While these goals can be explored during a focus group, taking the research on-location allows a researcher to better understand consumer behavior in real-time.

This includes collecting customer feedback on:

  • Packaging
  • Placement
  • Customer experience
  • In-aisle marketing efforts

Plus, this type of insight can be gathered on your own products as well as competitors - something not always possible with traditional focus groups

💡 The Key Takeaway: Conducting a shop-along, by design, is meant to create an engaging environment between the interviewer and participant. Important details like product packaging and customer experience can be seen through the lens of a real-time shopping experience.

Interested in Conducting a Shop-Along? Contact Us!

Drive Research is a national market research company located in New York. Our team is well-versed in shop-alongs and experienced with managing these projects from start to finish. We can conduct mystery shops or shop-alongs for organizations anywhere in the country. 

Reach out through any of the four ways below to get started.

  1. Message us on our website
  2. Email us at [email protected]
  3. Call us at 888-725-DATA
  4. Text us at 315-303-2040

elizabeth sincavage author of market research company blog

Elizabeth Sincavage

Elizabeth has a curious mind and is never afraid to ask “why?” She discovered her passion for research and exploring data while completing her bachelor’s degree at Marist College. As a researcher, she believes you’re never truly done learning.

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