Consumer Qualitative Research Techniques

In This Article

> Overview

> Qualitative Shopper Research Definition

> Who Uses Qualitative Shopper Research

> Why Invest in Qualitative Shopper Research

> Consumer Qualitative Research Techniques, Methods and Tools

> How Technology Is Enabling Better Qualitative Shopper Insights

> Mistakes to Avoid in Qualitative Shopper Research

> Getting the Most from Qualitative Shopper Research

> How to Present Qualitative Shopper Research

This article describes how Consumer Qualitative Research Techniques can be applied to develop winning shopper marketing solutions while shortening development time and reducing investment and, ultimately, result in increased shopper conversion.


Today’s increasingly competitive and complex shopping environment demands an even greater need to understand the behaviors, needs and motivations of the ever elusive shopper.

Qualitative research, such as focus groups, shop-a-longs and ethnography, has been applied for decades to do just this. These methods continue to be widely used and valued for uncovering shopper insights.

These approaches can now be significantly enhanced with the advancement of technology and science based biometric tools, such as eye tracking and facial coding. These rely on actual versus reported behavior and attitudes providing more reliable and accurate insight.

It’s by combining these advanced techniques with traditional qualitative approaches that you can truly unravel the complexities of today’s environment and gain the insight needed to develop superior shopper solutions.

Qualitative Shopper Research Definition

Qualitative shopper research provides deep understanding and insight into shopper behavior, needs and motivations to optimize design of new, or refinement of existing, shopper solutions for future validation.

It involves fewer respondents, as few as 10 and up to 50, and applies a broad range of approaches depending on the research objectives. A skilled moderator or interviewer uses innovative techniques to draw out hidden insight and, ideally leverages advanced biometric tools to further enhance understanding.

Applications apply to all stages of the shopper journey from planning, gathering information through to purchase, including delivery of the product or service. Examples include:

  • Understanding barriers to purchase and how to eliminate
  • Identifying Shopper navigation, leading to ideal signage placement
  • Unravelling shopper processes and stages for more involved purchases
  • Understanding decision points and how to influence
  • Providing competitive insights

It is typically used in the early stages of development or to uncover any potential issues. It can save both time and money in the long run and leads to more effective solutions.

Who Uses Qualitative Shopper Research

The most successful businesses, regardless of industry, recognize the value of having a deep understanding of their customers. Qualitative shopper research is designed to do just that.

Whether CPG, automotive, apparel, banking, car rental or insurance, shoppers go through a process with a series of stages and decisions points along the way. At any point, they either decide to interrupt or continue with their purchase. This applies to frequent and infrequent purchases, lower or higher ticket items and in-store or on-line purchases.

Every purchase includes a set of behaviors, attitudes and underlying motivations, either conscious or nonconscious. When understood, solutions that best meet shopper needs and encourage purchase can be developed.

Why Invest In Qualitative Shopper Research?

Today’s increasingly competitive and multi-faceted shopping environment make unravelling the complexities of today’s shopper paramount to success. Coupled with the demand for growth and speed to market, there is undeniable value in gaining deep understanding of your customers or shoppers.

Qualitative shopper research is ideal for this environment. It can shorten development time, reduce wasted investment and result in a competitive advantage with superior shopper solutions.

Reality is that businesses have good knowledge of what is happening – what is purchased, when and where. They may also know purchase drivers, such as price, promotion, shelf location or a communication campaign based on sales data or quantitative studies.

But the critical missing piece is having a clear understanding of the why — or why not — behind what shoppers do. This knowledge gap can lead to developing sub-optimal solutions and missed opportunity.

A few simple questions can help decide whether gaining deep understanding of your shoppers is worth the investment or, if not doing it, is worth the risk of lost time, money and sales in the end.

Do You Really Understand Your Shopper? You may know demographics, interests or socio-economic status. Maybe you’ve asked questions as to why they purchased items or what is important to them. But, do you truly understand their needs and underlying motivations? Qualitative research can help decipher these and lead to solutions that truly connect with shoppers.

Do You Understand Your Shopper Experience? Are you losing sales due to unknown barriers inhibiting completion of a purchase? Do you know what or where these are? Can incremental sales be prompted with more motivating signage or a different retail location? Qualitative shopper research can help enhance any stage or element of the journey.

Are You Expanding Into A New Retail Environment? Are you planning growth by entering a new retail channel or format? Are you embarking on e-commerce? Whether expanding into a new channel or a new retail format, qualitative shopper research is critical for early stage understanding for any new venture.

Are You Launching into a New Category or Service? Do you fully understand how shoppers behave in a new category or service? Are you familiar with the shopper steps and decisions or how competition satisfies these? Qualitative shopper research will provide valuable learning for a successful launch.

In the end, remember it’s only through truly understanding your shoppers or customers that you can develop solutions that will lead to growth.

Consumer Qualitative Research Techniques, Methods and Tools

Qualitative Shopper methods and techniques have evolved considerably as the environment and shoppers have morphed. They have expanded to encompass insight into e-commerce shopping. And, techniques have become more sophisticated as behavioral science and technology are applied to qualitative.

This section describes a wide array of qualitative research methods and techniques ranging from the more traditional to more sophisticated.

Qualitative Shopper Research Methods

Focus Groups: Most useful at the very early stages of shopper understanding when very little is known about a shopper journey, when exploring potential issues or when exposing a wide variety of ideas. Involving 8 to 10 respondents and typically conducted at a central location. Mini groups are a variety of these with 4 or 5 respondents which allows for deeper discussion with each person.

On-Line focus Groups: Not as personal, but provide the benefit of conveniently gaining input from respondents across numerous geographic areas. Particularly useful for global research or when input from multiple regions is needed, saving time and money.

In-Depth Interviews: Useful for sensitive, more personal topics or when more in-depth learning is needed on a particular stage of the journey. Conducted one-on-one or pairs to encourage opposing views. Best done as close to the “event” as possible.

Shop-A-Longs: A very effective approach for understanding barriers and identifying solutions to optimize the experience and solutions. It provides in context, “in the moment” understanding of the shopper journey as the researcher walks the retail environment with the shopper, observing behavior and asking questions along every aspect of the trip.

Ethnography: Rooted in anthropology, ethnographic immersions uncover differences between what shoppers say and what they actually do. It relies on passive observation while cultural and behavioral nuances are captured and explored by expert ethnographers.

On-line Mobile Ethnography: These can be highly engaging ways to gain shopper input and are effective with a mobile driven target groups. It requires an app on the participant’s phone used to receive notifications and allow for easy uploading of text, image or video responses. Participants are asked to capture a task “in the moment” at any environment or stage. Fast and convenient as people often have their mobile phone accessible at all times.

Mystery Shoppers: Used to uncover service issues including check out, service desk, ordering services on the phone or on-line, in restaurants, banks, etc. A qualified researcher acts as an “every day” shopper and reports the experience back to the client.

Design Groups with Illustrator or Super Groups: The goal is to create and optimize designs or processes used in shopping environments by bringing together groups of specifically recruited respondents identified as “creative thinkers”. By sharing stimuli and gaining feedback throughout the group, respondents react and build ideas together. It is an iterative process as an illustrator translates input into modified visuals on the spot for additional feedback.

On-Line Customer Communities, Bulletin Boards, Chat Rooms: Allows for fast and broad geographic input from respondents, useful for specified target groups with shared interests. With the ability to share text, video and images, respondents engage in a rich dialogue about their customer journey online. This may be in a community format or one-on-one with the moderator. Bulletin boards, where visitors respond to posted topics with various “streams” of discussion are also an option.

E-Commerce Qualitative Shopper Insight

The growth and relative newness of e-commerce create an ideal situation for qualitative shopper research. It assists in improving the on-line experience and product presentation at the early stages of prototype development or for continuous improvement – saving time and money before moving to a full scale test and launch.

Behavior is tracked with respondents recruited either to a central location to complete a prescribed shopping task or complete it at home where respondents will be directed to a site using their own device. Follow up in-depths can provide further learning.

Related article: This article looks at how CPG companies can apply Eye Tracking UX Research for E-Commerce Optimization to enhance product presentation and the overall shopper experience with the goals of increasing conversion and, ultimately e-Commerce ROI.

Innovative Qualitative Shopper Research Techniques

Observation: Observation is at the heart of science. Through consistently observing behavior, patterns can be understood to help pinpoint opportunities and challenges in the experience. Live observations allow for understanding of specific behavioral nuances while video observation captures broader behavioral patterns, such as where people walk, stop, interact and purchase.

Implicit Association Test: Useful in understanding subconsciously held attitudes towards shopping stages or environments which respondents are unable to describe or are unaware of. Digs deeper for true understanding of potential shopper barriers or issues.

Semiotics: A powerful tool to uncover hidden truths how a “brand” connects to the culture at large. It helps inform the upfront phase of behavioral exploration and understand how meaning is created through use of imagery, signs, sounds, and language used.

Moderators also apply a variety of techniques including imagery exercises, projective techniques, collages or storytelling, to name a few, all designed to understand human behavior and motivations.

How Technology Is Enabling Better Qualitative Shopper Insights

Thought leaders in market research are adopting and investing in building expertise in more advanced research techniques. These behavioral science based techniques leverage technology to capture real time actual versus reported behavior and emotional responses to the shopping environment and conditions. When added to shop a longs or other qualitative methods, they provide deeper, more reliable understanding of shopper behavior and attitudes.

Advanced Qualitative Shopper Research Techniques

Eye – Tracking: Provides the benefit of actual versus reported behavior as users wear eye tracking glasses to precisely capture what is viewed, in what order and levels of engagement. It allows users to go about tasks naturally without having to think out loud by being asked questions as in traditional research. Results are presented in easily understandable visuals using heat maps, opacity maps and scan patterns.

Facial coding: Facial coding is ideal for testing different in-store environments and the impact of different layouts or signage. Facial coding is also used for understanding emotional appeal of communication. It identifies exactly when and where a problem area occurs and potential issues that may not surface with traditional surveys. Using a webcam, different facial reactions are tracked while respondents are looking at different stimuli. Software then translates facial behavior into graphical outputs revealing emotional highs and lows. These results can also be combined with eye tracking results.

EEG: Identifies which part of your marketing efforts (web site, POS, signage, packaging) speaks directly to the emotional side of the brain by measuring these experiences directly. It provides understanding of emotional reactions to stimuli using a wireless handset to measure electrical brain wave signals in response to different stimuli. It pinpoints what is getting the most attention in terms of excitement, engagement and frustration. Using EEG does not let you read peoples’ minds, but rather you can understand general emotional reactions to stimuli.

GSR: Useful for measuring physiological arousal in the moment. It measures both positive and negative responses and gives an indication of the amplitude of arousal (how big or small a reaction). GSR is measured using a compact sports style wrist band which is lightweight, unobtrusive and highly portable. Similar to a polygraph, it’s a measure of skin conductance and is correlated with sweat. GSR should be used in conjunction with other neuro research technologies.

Shopping Environments for Qualitative Shopper Research

The following three shopping environments all represent the needed “in situation” context for gaining the best understanding.

The first two are realistic test environments where options can be quickly and easily be re-configured to maximize learning. These innovative shopper research venues cut down on development time, reduces costs and eliminates disruption to other customers.

Virtual Reality Simulated Shopping: An immersive research tool that can be used to measure reactions to life-sized environments. Virtual Reality is used to immerse research respondents in retail environments, quick service restaurants, bank branches or car dealerships, to name a few. Some Virtual Reality environments are tested on computer screens but they do not effectively replicate actual shopping behavior.

Shopper Lab: The unique benefit of a Shopper Lab is that it best replicates an actual shopping experience. It is constructed to replicate a live retail setting with aisles, shelving, customer signage, etc. and can be configured to replicate a variety of retail environments. Respondents are recruited to a central location site (shopper lab) and literally conduct a shopping excursion live, interacting with products or services as they would on an actual trip.

The third environment is at the actual retail site including any environment (supermarket, bank, car dealership, etc.).

In-Retail Testing: Provides a setting closest to reality. However, it can be disruptive to other shoppers, is labor intensive setting up the test environments and can take longer to complete. It requires retailer approval who may have “shut out” periods during holidays or other key weeks.

These research environments are all effectively used and, as with all research, the objectives, the industry, timing and other considerations will determine the best option.

Mistakes to Avoid in Qualitative Shopper Research

A number of watch-outs apply to all qualitative research study spanning respondent recruitment, moderator biases or jumping to conclusions too quickly. These, and other basics, can be avoided by working with a highly qualified moderator.

The following covers three common mistakes specific to qualitative shopper research.

Don’t Base Decisions on What Shoppers Say They Do: Why do people say one thing and do another? It could be that they remember incorrectly as the purchase happened too long ago or they are providing socially “correct” responses. It’s only through observation and applying the right techniques, that actual behavior is understood. Don’t rely on reported behavior!

Don’t Rely Solely On Rational Reasons For Purchase: Shoppers typically provide rational reasons for purchase behavior versus deeper emotional reasons. It’s easier, more logical and they are often not aware of, or don’t understand, these hidden influencing factors. Ensure you go beyond the obvious to these deeper motives.

Don’t Focus Just on the Final Purchase Stage: Purchases involve multiple stages and decision points, all of which represent a risk of losing the sale. It’s important to consider and understand each decision point along the way. Don’t narrow the focus too soon.

These are easily avoided by working with research companies who specialize in shopper behavior and understanding and have expertise in the available tools to get at underlying motives.

Getting the Most from Qualitative Shopper Research

Musts for all qualitative research start with having clear, aligned objectives through to unbiased interpretation and compelling presentation of results. The following goes beyond these with emphasis on getting the best out of Shopper Qualitative Research.

Test as close to the Shopper Environment and Event as Possible. The best shopper insights will be gained from conducting research in the situation in which the shopping decisions and actions are completed. These can be on their computer, mobile or in the retail environment itself– whether a bank, drive through fast food, grocery store, etc. Proximity to the shopping “event’ delivers the best insights.

Be Retailer Specific: The same shopper will behave and respond differently based on channel, banner, format, service venue or even by location. And, Clients are unlikely to accept learning based on a general environment. Ensure the environment represents your client’s venue.

Leverage Technology For Superior Insights: Behavioral science based techniques capture real time actual behavior and emotional responses to the Shopping environment and conditions. Using these will provide highly reliable and actionable input for qualitative and will result in superior solutions.

Leading Research Companies apply the latest in technology, have the expertise and the experience to get the best return on your research investment. And, importantly, they will always keep your business needs and goals front and center.

How to Present Qualitative Shopper Research Results

The best qualitative shopper research presentations create a picture of the shopper and tell a story explaining what is happening and why. It should leave your client with a deep understanding of their customer and recommended actions for subsequent validation.

Start with the business goal and research objective followed by how the research was done. Spend time explaining techniques if less familiar as it will save time in the end. The best presentations focus on what they know to be most important to their client and audience, not every “fascinating” piece of shopper learning.

Without the quantitative verified facts and percentages, the following tips will help create qualitative shopper presentations that are credible, engaging and action driven.

Tell a Story: Paint a picture of your client’s shoppers – their behavior, expectations, motivations and relevant aspects of their shopping experience. Include disappointments, pain points and things that delight them. Focus on what is and what isn’t working and to improve.

Bring the Shopper to Life: Share relevant and commonly shared shopper views via verbatims and visuals. Use Videos if Relevant: The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” definitely applies. There is nothing more powerful for clients than to actually see and hear their own customer or shopper reactions.

Bring Your Recommendations to Life: Clients are answering a business question and want to move quickly on the research recommendations. It is often beneficial to use a design team to illustrate recommendations, such as merchandising solutions or signage, if only as a starting point. This enables clients to see the insights translated into action and allows them to move faster into next steps.

By describing their shopper or customer in an engaging and memorable way, you will allow your client to walk in their shoes and see things how their shoppers actually see them and not how they assume they do. This is very powerful.


While some see qualitative shopper research as a simplistic and unstructured form of research used when time and funds are limited, nothing could be further from the truth. Not applying at all, or misuse of this valuable approach to gaining insight can result in missed opportunity or decisions that may negatively impact the effectiveness of marketing and sales efforts.

Today’s business demands require companies to maximize growth along every step of the path to purchase. This requires richer, more actionable insights. And, it means businesses are turning to Research Companies whose techniques offer the latest approaches and who have the experience to apply them and translate learning’s into actions.

Done right with the right Research Partner who specializes in the Shopper will ensure your shopper solutions are fully optimized.

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