MARKET RESEARCH: INTO THE HOME - Forget mystery shopping and checking out the contents of people’s shopping baskets. Ali Qassim assesses a project in which researchers will ’move’ into selected homes

Imagine that your in-laws are coming to stay for a weekend. Do you stack the empty fridge with brands you would never dream of buying to impress them? Perhaps you finally get around to the spring cleaning - in November. Now imagine a complete stranger is coming to stay, not just for the weekend, but for two weeks. And instead of being under the scrutiny of your eagle-eyed in-laws, the stranger will be bringing a video camera to record your every movement.

Imagine that your in-laws are coming to stay for a weekend. Do you

stack the empty fridge with brands you would never dream of buying to

impress them? Perhaps you finally get around to the spring cleaning - in

November. Now imagine a complete stranger is coming to stay, not just

for the weekend, but for two weeks. And instead of being under the

scrutiny of your eagle-eyed in-laws, the stranger will be bringing a

video camera to record your every movement.



This will soon become reality for selected households who take part (for

a basic fee) in a novel project due to be launched by the advertising

agency BMP DDB, under the auspices of its new behavioural research unit,

the Culture Lab.



The brainchild of the unit’s head, Siamack Salari, the project - which

has been several months in development - will monitor the activity of 12

households over a six-month period. For two weeks, a researcher, who

will stay in a spare room, will painstakingly record the activities of

various members of the households as they prepare meals, curl up in

front of the television and compile shopping lists.



Salari has already snapped up five fmcg companies to take part in the

study which, it is hoped, will yield a wealth of information about the

way consumers live and breathe a brand. The research goes a step beyond

another observational technique - mystery shopping - which has burgeoned

as a widely used mechanism after years of leading a rather undercover

existence.



Salari, who used to undertake mystery shopping research at J. Walter

Thompson, says the experiment represents the closest companies will get

to ’opening up consumers’ heads.’



’Observing people making decisions in shops is only the tip of the

iceberg,’ he says. ’What interests me is that the behaviour and choices

manifested in the store must be hugely influenced by what is happening

inside the home.’



The project isn’t running yet but fans and detractors are already lining

up. ’The challenge will be to get the study quantified,’ Merry Baskin,

head of planning at JWT, says. ’If you have 12 households and 12

different type of families, you can’t really draw conclusions. The

project would have to run for a long time.’



’It’s a fascinating project, but not really statistically numerative,’

Alan Wilson, a director at MindShare, adds.



A list of numbers is not necessarily what research is about, argues

Wendy Gordon, formerly at the Research Business but now a partner at her

own strategic consultancy, the Fourth Room. ’The industry has come a

long way in the past five years. Companies are aware that the old

scenario in which eight people sat talking in a room for a few hours

gives one perspective only. That’s because the people have been taken

out of their natural environment and been put in a sanitised one. They

are out of context.’



This observation comes closest to what Salari says he is setting out to

do. ’There is a great difference between what people say they do and

what they actually do. For instance, one woman claimed she shared the

task of washing- up equally with her husband. But in their home, we

found out that the husband just sat around on the sofa and never did the

washing-up.’



Salari cites another case: ’A woman believed she was saving money by

picking up every single promotion going in the supermarket. But when we

came to add up the things she had bought on promotion, we found she had

actually spent more money.



’In both cases, the women weren’t lying. It’s just that their belief

structure, which makes them happy, led them to perceive a different

reality.’



But how genuinely are people going to behave when they have a person

holding a video camera a few feet away? ’It would be surprising if the

presence of an impartial ob-server had no effect on behaviour,’ Jim

Oliver, automotive director at GfK Great Britain, thinks.



In Salari’s experience, if a family is not behaving naturally, it’s the

easiest thing to pick up on screen. ’If I come in and see that they’ve

spent the whole day polishing the kitchen, then I know it isn’t going to

work,’ he says. ’But if I turn up and they treat me as if I was a pain

in the arse, then I know things are going to be fine.’



The extent of the interviewer’s partiality also raises a question mark.

Salari admits: ’Sometimes it becomes tempting to try and help them.



You have to remember to be a passive observer.’



Gordon believes, though, that it is important to involve the household

in the thought process behind the experiment so the researcher won’t be

able to impose his/her own values on what is recorded without it being

spotted.



Oliver agrees and comments: ’One has to be careful that the observation

has something to back it up; in other words, don’t forget to ask the

questions.’



This is why the researcher has to be highly trained (’there are not too

many of them around,’ Salari says) and should be trying to test a set of

hypotheses or ideas to get the best results. But if such a researcher is

a rarity, isn’t the whole project prohibitively expensive? ’I can’t see

many clients who are going to be able to pay so much for research.

Unless they go in as a consortium of sponsors,’ Gordon says.



What are the prospects of home research catching the industry

alight?



’I could go for the predictable and say no,’Oliver says, ’but then

that’s what they said about mystery shopping.’ His company, GfK, cannot

totally pooh-pooh the idea of home behaviour research in any case. The

multinational is operating two controlled environments, one in Anjou in

the French Loire and another in Hasslock, Germany, in which cabled

households are monitored in every aspect of their purchasing life from

advertising to the way a single street promotion may trigger a

purchase.



Gordon believes companies are becoming increasingly open to new ways of

trying to understand consumer behaviour. ’In the end, good product and

good advertising comes from an insight into how human beings behave.



I suspect that the clients who have decided to sponsor Salari are

genuinely experimental and intrigued to discover all sorts of insights,’

she says.



’I take my hat off to them.’



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