Most consumers would be very surprised at the sheer level of sophistication inherent in the process of achieving the optimum supermarket store environment, which involves the culmination of research, experiments and in-depth insights into customers' shopping behaviours on the part of both supermarkets and brands, according to Tony Nunan, managing director of integrated research and design agency Visuality, who here offers new insights into how the store experience can be improved even further. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

Upon entering a supermarket, it is obvious to most shoppers that a huge amount of work has gone into the layout of the store: the promotional display that catches your eye at the entrance is clearly not there by chance; the positioning of the products on-shelf is not a mere coincidence, and the products lined up at the checkout have not have not been placed there because of a lack of space elsewhere in the supermarket. But most don't have any idea how the supermarkets arrived at that 'store recipe'.

The role of the subconscious
For most people, the word "research" will bring to mind the ubiquitous focus group: eight ladies gathered together in a front room on a rainy Tuesday evening, discussing ready meals or lunch boxes. Focus groups are used but, in truth, they're of limited use when trying to understand shopper behaviour. This is because a great deal of everyday shopping is undertaken automatically, with many decisions being taken at a subconscious level.

It's repetitive, it's not terribly interesting, and it's something we tend to forget about almost instantly. So there's little value in asking shoppers to describe in detail the process leading up to a purchasing decision they made last week - they simply won't remember. Alternative methods are needed if we are to develop genuine insights into shopper behaviour- something that Visuality has been researching for many years.

To understand something, observe it
As with research into any behaviour, the best way to understand it is to start by observing it. So, the best way to understand shopper behaviour is to spend time in-store simply watching how customers behave.

Occasionally it is appropriate to use CCTV cameras to record shopper actions (for example, for projects where Visuality has to report back to clients in great detail, and at a statistically rigorous level, or where there's a need to understand the impact of small changes in layout or merchandising on customer activity).

The resulting digital recordings are analysed and data generated on a wide range of metrics. This allows us to determine who is visiting a category and when, and to understand the extent to which different areas or elements in a display are successful in engaging customers and converting them into buyers.

Crucially, by running such exercises pre and post changes to the store or category, we can understand the impact of such changes on store performance.

When shopper observation is supported by intercept interviews with shoppers at the fixture, genuinely detailed insights into the effect of the store environment on customer satisfaction and propensity to buy can be generated.

Eye tracking innovations
Another useful technique in understanding the subconscious processes underpinning shopper behaviour is eye tracking.

Visuality uses two different methods of eye tracking. The first involves fitting discreet goggles to a shopper at the start of the shopping trip. These goggles produce a video record of everywhere the shopper looks during the journey through the store, enabling us to assess the impact and performance of all visual communication, from packaging to POS to price ticketing. The researcher can sit down with the shopper afterwards and run through the video, discussing points of interest and exploring those items that have generated interest or, as is often the case, caused confusion.

The second method is more of a "laboratory test". Respondents are shown images on a high definition, 24 inch colour screen. These images can be anything, from still photos to video footage. The company uses the kit to evaluate pack designs, POS and fixtures. Infra-red sensors within the monitor record everything the respondent looks at. When evaluating packs, the kit will reveal if a pack is looked at in a display, how it compares with its competitors, and which specific design elements drive recognition and understanding; it also identifies which elements of a pack design cause confusion.

The lab-based test isn't 'real' in the way that filming shoppers or using eye tracking goggles is, though: it is just a test. However, if used correctly, it can provide invaluable information about communication performance that simply can't be achieved by other means.

But is it Big Brother?
There is a very real concern among customers, many of whom feel that eye tracking and the analysis of CCTV recordings for marketing purposes is an invasion of their private thoughts. This needn't be the case though, for a few reasons. Firstly, the objective of the exercise is always to study mass activity and to generate as much data as possible - we are not interested in individual behaviour; secondly, the filming of customers is regulated by the Data Protection Act and the Code of Conduct of the Marketing Research Society. Implicit with the regulations is that no individual is ever to be identified. There is also a requirement that signs must be put up telling people they're being filmed.

A further point to note is that it's in customers' interests that this activity is carried out, as it results in an improvement in store layout enabling customers to shop more efficiently - a win-win situation.

If you can't see it, you can't buy it
In a recent experiment at a marketing trade show, Visuality challenged visitors to find the top 10 advertised products which were "hidden" amongst the top 100 advertised products - like a branded version of "Where's Wally". Coca-Cola, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the easiest to spot; it was found fastest, and was the only pack found every time. Participants found many other leading brands much more difficult to find, raising genuine questions about their likely visibility on-shelf.

"All these techniques, resulting in valuable insight, can contribute to the retailer's ability to make their stores easier to shop. This, in turn, improves customer satisfaction and means we can turn an increasing proportion of shoppers into buyers," concluded Nunan.