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    The Benefits of Tracking Shoppers' Paths to Purchase

    Grocers are using increasingly sophisticated technology to study shopper behavior

    By John Karolefski

    Why track shoppers?

    Technologies that anonymously track shoppers can help in optimizing almost all aspects of store design, merchandising and marketing, says Rajeev Sharma, founder and CEO of State College, Pa.-based VideoMining Corp., which studies in-store shopper behavior for retailers and brands.

    “Given the changing competitive landscape that is spilling over from the brick and mortar to online channels, it is especially important for grocery retailers to develop capabilities for understanding the in-store behavior of their shoppers,” explains Sharma. “In essence, these new technologies enable traditional grocery retailers to have the same level of understanding about their shoppers as online retailers such as Amazon.”

    According to research by the Chicago-based trade association Shop! (formerly POPAI North America), three out of four of all purchase decisions (76 percent) are made in the store. Obviously, engaging shoppers along the path to purchase is one of the most important challenges facing retailers and consumer packaged goods manufacturers. Many analysts believe that the best way to do so is to start by tracking the shoppers’ paths, which provide clues about where to place products and displays in the store’s layout.

    “Understanding a shopper’s path through the store highlights opportunities to cross-merchandise products and allows retailers and potentially branded CPGs the opportunity to tailor offers based on a shopper’s in-store behavior,” says Randy Burt, who leads the Americas grocery practice at New York-based consultancy A.T. Kearney. “Video analytics and direct observation are the more mature methods to determine the path shoppers are taking.”

    “The path of your shopper can tell you what areas you need to grow or reduce, and provide insight into the motivations and interests of your customers,” notes Bharat Rupani, president of San Diego-based Interactions Marketing, a firm specializing in product demonstrations and experience marketing. “For example, if you’re finding most shoppers shop the perimeter of the store in the evenings for dinner and never touch the center store, you likely have a location in an area of the store with busy shoppers who respond best to convenience. There are several ways to determine this path, including department and category analyses, shopper intercept surveys, and mystery shops.

    “Understanding how a shopper interacts with the store — which aisles they enter, how long they spend in different aisles, which types of products they spend time reading labels — can help retailers determine, for example, optimal placement of demos and special display locations, where to place product to encourage impulse purchases, cross-merchandising opportunities, and overall flow,” adds Rupani.

    Benefits of Tracking

    Julie Schlack, SVP of innovation and design at Boston- and New York-based brand adviser C Space, believes in the strategic use of shopping-path data that let grocers identify all of the discrete factors that precede a product purchase. For example, video tracking and beacons can create heat maps depicting how many people are walking through each aisle, where they’re pausing, how long they’re spending in front of each product category, and the like.

    Schlack and Curtis Tingle, chief marketing officer of Livonia, Mich.-based Valassis, list several benefits of tracking the paths of shoppers other than the proper placement of displays and sampling stations:

    • Helping grocers reorganize the product layout to boost traffic in undervisited aisles
    • Knowing where shoppers go in-store — and don’t go — and how often they visit specific departments
    • Understanding where in the store they linger versus where they breeze by, which assists retailers in making layout, planogram and assortment decisions

    “Knowing a typical shopper’s path informs the store of what shoppers want and need,” says Interactions’ Rupani. “If they’re shopping the perimeter and you want to grow center store, enticing end cap displays or product demonstrations featuring center store items can help alter the shopper path to improve areas with flat or declining sales. Additionally, the knowledge of what drives shoppers — be it value, convenience, health and wellness, or luxury — must be a key part in planning any store set or refresh. There is a positive correlation between how well a store reflects the needs and behaviors of the community it serves and its sales, shopper satisfaction and loyalty.”

    Not everyone agrees on the use and value of sophisticated technology to track the paths of shoppers through a grocery store. Dr. Billie Blair, an organizational psychologist and president/CEO of Murrieta, Calif.-based Change Strategists, a large international management consulting firm, opts for the simple approach.

    “If a grocer wants to know about which store layouts are preferred by customers, then ask them,” Blair says. “Don’t do anything ridiculous like ‘tracking customer trips.’ How could that possibly tell them anything, other than the customer is forgetful or the store layout is confusing? How could this possibly be known without asking the customer? It’s a very simple matter to design a quick questionnaire for querying customers. Good grief! Why all the pseudoscience guesswork? Just ask the customers already!”

    While such opinions have value in the overall discussion of tracking shopper paths, they’re outliers among grocery analysts. Most of them see the value of using technology to depict how many people are walking through each aisle, where they’re pausing, how long they’re spending in front of each product category, and so on.

    “While these methods may help grocers boost category sales,” says C Space’s Schlack, “they’re only beneficial if they enhance the overall shopper experience.”

    By John Karolefski
    • About John Karolefski John Karolefski is a veteran business journalist with 25 years of experience covering CPG, retail and technology. Over the years, he has edited several trade publications and is the co-author of three books: "TARGET 2000: the Rising Tide of TechnoMarketing," "All about Sampling and Demonstrations," and "Consumer-Centric Category Management." He has appeared on CNN, CBS Radio and BBC Radio to discuss marketing issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

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