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Retail 2020

Remember the year 2000? After Y2K passed safely, that year some optimistic analysts predicted that India’s modern retail chains would reach 20 per cent market share by 2015. Two years after that supposed watershed, another firm declared that modern retail will be at around that level in 2020 – but wait! – only in the top 9 cities in the country. Don’t hold your breath: India surprises; constantly. As many have noted, “predictions are tough, especially about the future!” What we can do is reflect on some of this year’s developments that could play out over the coming year.

In many minds 2019 may be the Year of the Recession, plagued by discounting, but that demand slowdown has brewing for some time now. However, there’s another under-appreciated factor that has been playing out: while small, independent retailers can flex their business investments with variations in demand, modern retail chains need to spread the business throughout the year in order to meet fixed expenses and to manage margins more consistently.

To reduce dependence on festive demand, retailers like Big Bazaar and Reliance have been inventing shopping events like Sabse Sasta Din (Cheapest Day), Sabse Sachi Sale (Most Authentic Sale), Republic Day / 3-Day sale, Independence Day shopping and more for the last few years. In ecommerce, there’s the Amazon’s Freedom Sale, Prime Day, and Great India Festival, and Flipkart’s Big Billion Day Sale. This year retailers and brands went overboard with Black Friday sale, a shopping-event concept from the 1950s in the USA linked to a harvest celebration marked by European colonisers of North America. (The fact that Black Friday has a totally different connotation in India since the terrorist bombings in Bombay in 1993 seems to have completely escaped the attention of brands, retailers and advertising agencies.) Be that as it may, we can only expect more such invented and imported events to pepper the retail calendar, to drive footfall and sales. The consumer has been successfully converted to a value-seeking man-eater fed on a diet of deals and discounts. With no big-bang economic stimuli domestically and a sputtering global economy, we should just get used to the idea of not fireworks but slow-burning oil lamps and sprinklings of flowers and colour through the year. Retailers will just have to work that much harder to keep the lamps from sputtering.

Ecommerce companies have been in operating for 20 years now, but the Indian consumer still mostly prefers a hands-on experience. The lack of trust is a huge factor, built on the back of inconsistency of products and services. The one segment that has been receiving a lot of love, attention and money this year (and will grow in 2020) is food and grocery, since it is the largest chunk of the consumption basket. Beyond the incumbents – Grofers, Big Basket, MilkBasket and the likes – now Walmart-Flipkart and Amazon are going hard at it, and Reliance has also jumped in. Remember, though, that selling groceries online is as old as the first dot-com boom in India. E-grocers still struggle to create a habit among their customers that would give them regular and remunerative transactions, and they also need to tackle supply-side challenges. Average transactions remain small, demand remains fragmented, and supply chain issues continue to be troublesome. Most e-grocers are ending up depending on a relatively narrow band of consumers in a handful of cities.  The generation that is comfortable with an ever-present screen is not yet large enough to tilt the scales towards non-store shopping and convenience isn’t the biggest driver for the rest, so, for a while it’ll remain a bumpy, painful, unprofitable road.

Where we will see rapid pick-up is social commerce, both in terms of referral networks as well as using social networks to create niche entrepreneurial businesses – 2020 should be a good year for social commerce, including a mix of online platforms, social media apps as well as offline community markets. However, western or East Asia models won’t be replicated as the Indian market is significantly lower in average incomes, and way more fragmented.

As a closing thought, I’ll mention a sector that I’ve been involved with (for far too long): fashion. In the last 8-10 decades, globally fashion has become an industry living off artificially-generated expiry dates. A challenge that I have extended to many in the industry, and this year publicly at a conference: if consumption falls to half in the next five years, and you still have to run a profitable business (obviously!), how would you do it? Plenty of clues lie in India – we epitomise the future consumers; frugal, value-seeking, wanting the latest and the best but not fearful about missing out the newest design, because it will just be there a few weeks later at a discount. If you can crack that customer base and turn a profit, you would be well set for the next decade or so.

(Published as a year-end perspective in the Financial Express.)

Hyperlocals, Aggregators: Developing the Ecosystem

Aggregator models and hyperlocal delivery, in theory, have some significant advantages over existing business models.

Unlike an inventory-based model, aggregation is asset-light, allowing rapid building of critical mass. A start-up can tap into existing infrastructure, as a bridge between existing retailers and the consumer. By tapping into fleeting consumption opportunities, the aggregator can actually drive new demand to the retailer in the short term.

A hyperlocal delivery business can concentrate on understanding the nuances of a customer group in a small geographic area and spend its management and financial resources to develop a viable presence more intensively.

However, both business models are typically constrained for margins, especially in categories such as food and grocery. As volume builds up, it’s feasible for the aggregator to transition at least part if not the entire business to an inventory-based model for improved fulfilment and better margins. By doing so the aggregator would, therefore, transition itself to being the retailer.

Customer acquisition has become very expensive over the last couple of years, with marketplaces and online retailers having driven up advertising costs – on top of that, customer stickiness is very low, which means that the platform has to spend similar amounts of money to re-acquire a large chunk of customers for each transaction.

The aggregator model also needs intensive recruitment of supply-side relationships. A key metric for an aggregator’s success is the number of local merchants it can mobilise quickly. After the initial intensive recruitment the merchants need to be equipped to use the platform optimally and also need to be able to handle the demand generated.

Most importantly, the acquisitions on both sides – merchants and customers – need to move in step as they are mutually-reinforcing. If done well, this can provide a higher stickiness with the consumer, which is a significant success outcome.

For all the attention paid to the entry and expansion of multinational retailers and nationwide ecommerce growth, retail remains predominantly a local activity. The differences among customers based on where they live or are located currently and the immediacy of their needs continue to drive diversity of shopping habits and the unpredictability of demand. Services and information based products may be delivered remotely, but with physical products local retailers do still have a better chance of servicing the consumer.

What has been missing on the part of local vendors is the ability to use web technologies to provide access to their customers at a time and in a way that is convenient for the customers. Also, importantly, their visibility and the ability to attract customer footfall has been negatively affected by ecommerce in the last 2 years. With penetration of mobile internet across a variety of income segments, conditions are today far more conducive for highly localised and aggregation-oriented services. So a hyperlocal platform that focusses on creating better visibility for small businesses, and connecting them with customers who have a need for their products and services, is an opportunity that is begging to be addressed.

It is likely that each locality will end up having two strong players: a market leader and a follower. For a hyperlocal to fit into either role, it is critical to rapidly create viability in each location it targets, and – in order to build overall scale and continued attractiveness for investors – quickly move on to replicate the model in another location, and then another. They can become potential acquisition targets for larger ecommerce companies, which could acquire to not only take out potential competition but also to imbibe the learnings and capabilities needed to deal with demand microcosms.

High stake bets are being placed on this table – and some being lost with business closures – but the game is far from being played out yet.

Opportunities & Challenges for Dutch (Semi-)Processed Food Companies in India

A seminar was organised on the 12th of May in Zeist (the Netherlands) on “the Opportunities & Challenges for Dutch (Semi-) Processed Food Companies in India”. Highlights of a report and other insights were presented by Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight. Other entrepreneurs who also shared their experiences in India, and the Dutch agricultural counsellor, Wouter Verhey, was present at the event.

The sessions included:

  • Welcome and opening remarks by Wouter Verhey, Agricultural Counselor India & Sri Lanka at the Embassy of The Netherlands in New Delhi.
  • The market for processed food in India by Devangshu Dutta of Third Eyesight, India.
  • Entrepreneurial challenges in the food sector in India by Peter Uyttewaal, Partner India of Larive International. The characteristics and strengths of the Dutch Food and Grocery Industry by Sekhar Lahiri of FNLI.
  • Discovering the Pot of Gold in India by Sumit Saran of Future Consumer Enterprise Limited, India.

You can download a summary of the report via this link: India – Opportunities Challenges for Dutch Processed Food Companies

Will the Indian Apparel Sector Change its Fashion?

The apparel retail sector worldwide thrives on change, on account of fashion as well as season.

In India, for most of the country, weather changes are less extreme, so seasonal change is not a major driver of changeover of wardrobe. Also, more modest incomes reduce the customer’s willingness to buy new clothes frequently.

We believe pricing remains a critical challenge and a barrier to growth. About 5 years ago, Third Eyesight had evaluated the pricing of various brands in the context of the average incomes of their stated target customer group. For a like-to-like comparison with average pricing in Europe, we came to the conclusion that branded merchandise in India should be priced 30-50% lower than it was currently. And this is true not just of international brands that are present in India, but Indian-based companies as well. (In fact, most international brands end up targeting a customer segment in India that is more premium than they would in their home markets.)

Of course, with growing incomes and increasing exposure to fashion trends promoted through various media, larger numbers of Indian consumers are opting to buy more, and more frequently as well. But one only has to look at the share of marked-down product, promotions and end-of-season sales to know that the Indian consumer, by and large, believes that the in-season product is overpriced.

Brands that overestimate the growth possibilities add to the problem by over-ordering – these unjustified expectations are littered across the stores at the end of each season, with big red “Sale” and “Discounted” signs. When it comes to a game of nerves, the Indian consumer has a far stronger ability to hold on to her wallet, than a brand’s ability to hold on to the price line. Most consumers are quite prepared to wait a few extra weeks, rather than buying the product as soon as it hits the shelf.

Part of the problem, at the brands’ end, could be some inflexible costs. The three big productivity issues, in my mind, are: real estate, people and advertising.

Indian retail real estate is definitely among the most expensive in the world, when viewed in the context of sales that can be expected per square foot. Similarly, sales per employee rupee could also be vastly better than they are currently. And lastly, many Indian apparel brands could possibly do better to reallocate at least part of their advertising budget to developing better product and training their sales staff; no amount of loud celebrity endorsement can compensate for disinterested automatons showing bad products at the store.

Technology can certainly be leveraged better at every step of the operation, from design through supply chain, from planogram and merchandise planning to post-sale analytics.

Also, some of the more “modern” operations are, unfortunately, modelled on business processes and merchandise calendars that are more suited to the western retail environment of the 1980s than on best-practice as needed in the Indian retail environment of 2011! The “organised” apparel brands are weighed down by too many reviews, too many batch processes, too little merchant entrepreneurship. There is far too much time and resource wasted at each stage. Decisions are deliberately bottle-necked, under the label of “organisation” and “process-orientation”. The excitement is taken out of fashion; products become “normalised”, safe, boring which the consumer doesn’t really want! Shipments get delayed, missing the peaks of the season. And added cost ends in a price which the customer doesn’t want to pay.

The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.

Whether this will happen through a rapid shakedown or a more gradual process over the next 10-15 years, whether it will be driven by large international multi-brand retailers when they are allowed to invest directly in the country or by domestic companies, I do believe the industry will see significant shifts in the coming years.

Fan-tastic idea from Dyson

It’s curious how James Dyson consistently gets “more” (price) for “less” (components). First it was the bagless vaccum cleaner, now it is a bladeless fan. The retail price is currently pegged at £200, and the product is initially being targeted at the US and Japanese markets, which obviously have more people facing hotter temperatures for more weeks in the year than Dyson’s home country, the UK. Or perhaps a bigger market segment for the latest tech toys that perform well in addition to looking cool.

Branded the Dyson Air Multiplier, it is certainly a fan-tastic idea, and the uphill struggle should be significantly less than when he was trying to sell bagless vacuum cleaners. If anything there is now a “Dyson premium” available to him on the price.

However, in this case, the prices definitely need to be more accessible, or he’ll be facing clones within months. Fans are already a more acceptable reality in income poor countries, and the market significantly larger in those countries. At some lower price point the addressable market will be exponentially larger, and someone else will definitely tackle it. Patent or no patent.

Here’s a Youtube video of Dyson explaining how the fan works. Share your thoughts below, after you’ve watched the video.

Look Into Your Customer’s Eyes

REVIEW: FLIP THE FUNNEL: Joseph Jaffe (John Wiley & Sons)

I’ve read Joseph Jaffe’s book across multiple air journeys, nationally and internationally. I agreed with the principles described and saw parallels with excellent services businesses over the past few years. However, the implications didn’t quite strike me in the gut until I realised – while writing this on board an aircraft – that the journeys I had taken with this book had also been with just one airline.

My loyalty to this airline is not because of the mileage card I hold, although their mileage programme is certainly among the best in the world. It is not because they were the cheapest or the most on-time, though they compete favourably with other comparable airlines.

My loyalty to them is because of what they did during the Mumbai floods in July 2005. Those who remember the chaos, through personal experience or through media, wouldn’t blame airline staff for abandoning their counters, and leaving the airport to try and reach home as early as they could. Certainly most of them must have felt helpless in the face of increasingly desperate passengers who couldn’t expect to depart any time soon. Jet Airways stood out as being the only one in Mumbai’s Terminal 1-B whose team felt responsible enough to stay back at the airport to be available to the passengers. Not only did they ensure that the passengers stuck in the terminal were safe, but that all waiting passengers got three meals a day! Whether or not they were flying with Jet Airways.

Now, in telling you about incident, I have closed the loop and given you a living example of the “flipped funnel” that Jaffe describes in the book.

The normal marketing funnel is described by the process Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action (or “AIDA”) which underlies the spray-and-pray approach of traditional marketing. The result of AIDA is that a lot of customers become aware of a business, brand or product. Some are interested enough to seek out the product. However the number who move on to the next stage of actually expressing desire to buy is lower, and those who actually buy are fewer still, as amply demonstrated by carts being abandoned before actually checking out.

Jaffe points out that the AIDA principle was created in times of abundant growth in the US, but is a suicidal funnel to fall into when resources are scarce. It is lopsided, with more money being spent on customers who will not buy. It is linear and does not capture the complexity of buying behaviour. It is open and incomplete because it only handles potential customers up to the point where they become actual customers, but does nothing with them thereafter. AIDA also inherently assumes customer churn, hence the opening focus on creating awareness among potentially new customers.

The alternative principles Jaffe describes are simple: getting more customers to buy from us and more often (repeat purchases), to spend increasing amounts with us (loyalty), and finally, to recommend us to their friends and associates (referrals). However, to do this requires dramatically different thinking from AIDA spray-and-pray. Jaffe’s alternative model – ADIA (Acknowledgment, Dialogue, Incentivisation and Activation) – focuses on customers more than prospects.

Acknowledging customers itself is such a major stumbling block for so many companies, such as the retailer whose front-line staff would prefer to fold and put away garments than meeting the eyes of the customer who has walked into the store. In some cases it may be about using technology effectively rather than as a barrier. When the taxi company can recognise the number you are calling from and close your order in less than 120 seconds, why does the telephone company that issued that number make you jump through burning hoops for 5-10 minutes before they will allow you to request a duplicate bill?

That acknowledgement should lead to an on-going dialogue, before, through and well after the purchase is done. This would be supported by constant incentives for the customer to buy more from you. It is not about having a loyalty programme, as Jaffe quotes studies that demonstrate that loyalty programmes alone don’t produce loyalty; in fact there are enough businesses that do not run loyalty schemes but have what can only be called fan followings.

The final link in that funnel is building that community of evangelist enthusiasts who will carry your brand message farther and far more effectively than any traditional form of marketing could. Religious organisations have known this for thousands of years – it is high time that businesses and other organisations recognised the power of the community as well.

Jaffe acknowledges that Seth Godin actually came up with the term “flipping the funnel” over 3 years ago, when he released the e-book of that name (available on sethgodin.typepad.com) primarily about using social media effectively. Jaffe, to his credit, has applied the principles more fully across the marketing and customer service process.

Jaffe recently sold his business, crayon, but has kept his title “Chief Interruptor” at the acquiring company. If you want to make your marketing really pay, you’ll find it worthwhile letting “Flip the Funnel” interrupt your normal marketing thought-process.

(This review was written for Businessworld.)

Golden Geese, Steel Safes

(Contributed to the BusinessWorld cover story – “What 2 Expect in 2010”, issue of January 4, 2010)

Everything that can be said and assumed about the Indian market is true at some level of granularity. Very simply, in India there is a segment for every product, an opportunity for every service, be it ever so small. But when bubbles are bursting all over, as the Noughties Decade comes to a close, the puzzle that is Indian consumer market also warrants a fresh look.

For most of the Noughties Decade India has seen Generation-C, the “Choice” generation, coming of age. They have moved over from being “secondary customers” consuming off their parents’ incomes, to entering the work-force and becoming customers in their own right.

It may sound trite, but Gen-C customers have grown up with many models of 2-wheelers and 4-wheelers and colour television with multiple channels. They have many more career options and many more opportunities in each career. Not only have they grown up on a diet of choice, they have also grown up with much higher confidence about the future, about their place in the world and what they can expect. And they have infected the outlook of generations older than them as well with a similar confidence.

Therefore, for most of the decade, it has been a distinctly rosy picture for consumer goods marketers and retailers. Business plans routinely expected 20-50% annualised growth, and businesses even delivered those figures on some basis or the other. Organizations as diverse as retailers and management consultants were inspired by India’s age-old image as the Bird of Gold. Supermarket chains mushroomed like never before, department stores and speciality retailers grew their footprints, quick-service and casual dining expanded covers, while electronics, durables, leisure companies, and car brands all counted India among their hottest markets.

Product off-take reflected this outlook. Amongst the FMCG sector, while basic items such as the bath and shower segment demonstrated a steady annualised growth of about 7%, premium cosmetics galloped at almost 20% a year. While the relatively mature 2-wheeler market grew at just over 7.5% annually between 2002-03 and 2008-09, the 4-wheeler passenger vehicle market demonstrated growth of almost 14% a year in the same period.

All this was before the recent rude interruption.

A speed-breaker began showing up in the consumer market in late-2007 and grew larger through 2008. Once the global financial markets melted down in late-2008, media sentiment turned acutely negative about the Indian market as well. And, eventually, with uncertainty prevailing around the world, consumer spending in India did take a hit. Consumers cut back on the frequency of purchases or traded down.

On the trade side, retail businesses began acknowledging that stores were performing below plan and went into rationalisation mode. For branded suppliers, where some of the growth had come from stuffing the pipeline and filling new shelves, wholesale order books became thinner.

Yet, as painful as the economic scenario might have appeared, the Indian consumer market has shown remarkable resilience. Demand in smaller cities and towns has remained robust. Regional brands, especially, found plenty of opportunity to grow in markets and geographical regions where they were under-penetrated or absent.

And as the mood lifted through the latter half of 2009, consumer demand clearly moved back up. The speed at which the demand rebounded would suggest that the Indian market was relatively sheltered from the global economic storm.

However, there are some critical differences to understand.

On the one hand, Gen-C’s confidence shook for the first time – a generation that has only seen upward mobility, witnessed job cuts and salary freezes or declines even if only second-hand. Comparisons with the Great Depression may be exaggerated but it is a scenario they can now imagine as a possibility. At least three new professional academic batches have or will have moved into the job market under these sober conditions. On the other hand, tremendous inflation in basic costs supports some amount of uncertainty about the future. The fact that many of the Gen-C would have just begun or would be about to begin families serves to only heighten such anxiety.

So, let’s recognise two immutable facts about the Indian consumer market in the current environment.

First: that the ancestral “steel safes” are back, at least figuratively if not literally. Customers do want to save more for now. And if they are spending, they want to feel that they are extracting far more value than the price they are exchanging across the counter, value that will last long after the transaction at the store. In recent years, this inherent ‘value orientation’ of the Indian consumer was neglected by many. Now every product, service or brand must aim to deliver this sustainable value, and demonstrate the value repeatedly.

Secondly, each business needs to look at the lifetime value of a customer if it can. Rather than cutting the golden bird open and trying to extract all the golden eggs at once, one needs need to keep the bird well-fed, happy and healthy, and enjoy its rewards over several years. Rather than creaming the market, pricing, branding and distribution need to be structured for a sustainable relationship with the customer.

Some businesses will work better than others in this market, and strategies will need to be adapted. A lifecycle approach may handy in identifying the business segments which might meet the steel safe criterion, or the golden goose criterion, or both.

The first segment that comes to mind is weddings. Wedding expenditure is seen as a “social investment” for both the families, and the actual items bought are an investment into the couple’s future together. So, bridal trousseaux and wedding wardrobes, wedding arrangers and catering, and household goods provide significantly more tangible and intangible value than the money spent.

Similarly, “first child” isn’t usually a segment in any marketing handbook, but should be. The couple’s first born, especially if the baby is the first in its generation will usually get a disproportionate amount of attention and spending on clothing and utilities. A baby’s growth into a child, of course, can provide a relationship and marketing opportunity that can last for years, but the first 2-3 years are specifically valuable. What’s more, given India’s demographic dividend in the form of a sustained under-30 age group, baby products have a sustained and growing value as a market.

As the child grows, there are clear indicators of current and future value that can drive purchases. While base schooling is an essential expenditure, extra-classes and tuitions are a high-value discretionary investment that parents are choosing to make. Sports, on the other hand, however essential they may be to a child’s development are often seen as a distraction. That is, unless the child is attending sports coaching and the parents have an eye on helping the child create a career from it – in which case, a coach who is apparently good, branded equipment and kit are definitely worth investing in. So a cricket coaching franchise might just be the ticket to fortune, while a toy company may struggle. Some may decry the decline in art, craft, philosophy and fundamental sciences, but these are not on the list of priority of most parents. In the short to medium term, parents would continue to disproportionately push their wards into academic disciplines that are seen to develop marketable skills and pay well. Expect continued growth in the engineering, medical and management education market, but also in other vocational disciplines.

On the other hand, everything is not an investment for the future. Present comforts may also provide extra value, through convenience.

Some of these comforts may be as small as enjoying out-of-home exotic meals (pizza and pasta still qualify as exotic for the bulk of the population). Or if eating out looks out of budget, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meals are an easy substitute. Jubilant, Yum, McDonald’s, Haldiram, Sarvana’s, Nirula’s and the thousands of other casual dining and snack food chains have a long clear highway of growth ahead, as do snacks and packaged food companies such as Nestle, Britannia and ITC.

Brown goods and white goods that offer comfort and convenience – coolers, water heaters, convectors, air-conditioners and kitchen gadgets – continue their onward march, despite the huge shortfall in electricity. Even if the big brands struggle with their price points and overheads, regional brands and private labels will continue growing strongly in these segments.

Health is another area for significant investment. With prevalence of lifestyle-ailments, from stiff necks to high blood pressure, basic pharmacists to cardiovascular specialists are all in demand. Anticipate significant growth to continue in over-the-counter medication, medical devices, as well as clinical and hospital care.

At the other end of the scale, with decent and adequate public transport lacking in most cities, we can expect personal vehicles to increase multi-fold, despite the small blip in 2008-09. About 60 million 2-wheelers and over 10 million passenger vehicles have already been added during the decade, and the growth trend looks set to resume from 2010, unless there are significant oil price or vehicle taxation shocks delivered by the government.

And as consumer confidence resurges, more overt displays or personal spends will return as well, including apparel, footwear, home products, accessories, vacations, fitness and recreation, but we would expect them to follow behind the higher priority “safe” or “geese” segments.

Finally, the one thing that marketers in any product need not be really concerned about whether there is a future in this market. Even, Hindustan Unilever, a mature FMCG company with very high distribution penetration built over decades, still counts less than 60% Indians as its customers.

Surely most companies have a much longer road ahead before they need to be worried about their markets becoming saturated.

Reactions to ‘Numbers and Stories’

Following on our article (“Numbers and Stories”, 23 November 2009), our friends at Retailwire.com thought it would be interesting to run a poll to ask the Retailwire community what they thought about retailers using research. The original discussion is here on Retailwire, but we’ve reproduced the comments and the poll results as they stand today (16 December 2009).

As evident from the graph below, the short answer is “no, companies don’t use research well”; only 15% of the respondents felt that companies are “good” in using research, at their best. Should we blame the companies or the researchers? The comments seem to suggest that the blame needs to be shared equally.

Comments below:

This sounds a lot like a chapter we wrote for ESOMAR’s Best Practices book. We have devalued research in favor of insights, which can rely much more on a good narrative and much less on good data. A management team that expects insights from research all the time is asking for trouble down the road. A research team that doesn’t focus on quality first and insights second is doomed to failure when management makes the wrong moves. Research needs to give management the best information possible in a way that management can understand it. Management needs to understand that research is providing the best information it can within budget constraints. The two need to work together. [Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations]

One of the concerns I have at present is how SKU rationalization research is viewed, so quickly judged, and acted upon. Many retailers are looking only through a narrow interpretation based on shear numbers and not taking into consideration other more visionary factors about specialty brands, niche items, and growth brands. If this keeps up, consumers will have very few choices and most of the stores will all look the same with exact assortments. Only price will differentiate one from the other. The results will be rather ironic. [David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing and Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates]

I agree that there is a lot of bad “research” out there in the world. Any analytical study has to be right, applicable, and actionable. If a study doesn’t meet these criteria, it is worse than useless–it can actually pollute the minds of decision makers by letting them think they know something they don’t. Before spending any valuable share of mind on numbers, executives should ensure:

1) Is it right? If I only had a buck for every time I’ve seen a big name consulting firm presentation with numerical “findings” using a flawed methodology or with no statistical significance…. I’d be retired in Paris right now.

2) Is it applicable? So, some other retailer says their TV spend has a 150% return (or some consultant claims that). So what? Your business is different. Consumers react differently to every retail concept. You do need to know for you.

3) Is it actionable? Oh, we all know about the study designed to validate the CEOs hunch. Want to guess what the consultant’s findings will say? If you are going to do research, you’d better be prepared to act on the findings–either way.

This is why in-market testing is such a powerful technique in retail. While it does take commitment to do it right, it is one of few techniques that almost always meets these criteria. [Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President, APT]

It is absolutely true that marketers do not often take the time to understand the basis of the research that they are presented with. Understanding how the research is developed and the analysis approach used to develop recommendations is an important, if misunderstood, part of the job description for a data-driven marketer.

I do find, however, that marketers more often do not carry out sufficient research to draw conclusions, even when that research is relatively easy and low-cost to execute. If you have access to email addresses, you can execute basic research surveys to customers and gain valuable insights in less than a week, at a very low cost. Those opportunities to “fill in the gaps” are often overlooked. Sometimes those insights can make the difference between success and an indifferent failure of a key initiative.

Marketers must understand the opportunities that research affords them, even when timelines are tight. Obtaining the Voice of the Customer, particularly the Best Customer, is a practice that should be followed religiously. Only then will marketers be able to gain insight and make truly data-driven decisions.  [Mark Price, Managing Partner, M Squared Group, Inc.]

We have to keep in mind that corporations are run by human beings that often make decisions on emotion rather than logic. I have many clients who have been very successful making decisions by shooting from the hip, yet they always prefer to see my research, just to be sure. Most of my clients are very bright people and my research generally confirms their own instinctive thoughts. There have been times when I have been brought in to do an autopsy on a project to find out why a store failed. Typical reasons are:

Researchers did not want to offend management so they candy-coated the results.

Key decision makers are suffering from some kind of physical or emotional impairment which affects their ability.

Corrupt middle managers that change the research results.

Researchers leaving out a key piece of data (i.e. not telling management that the Mexican format store they have planned is in a Puerto Rican neighborhood).

Overall, I don’t think retailers have a narrow view of research. Researchers can do a better job in communication by simplifying the results, being blunt, and putting their integrity ahead of their paycheck. [David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research]

I think there are two elements at play here:

First and perhaps foremost, retail is an emotional business. We can have reams of data and still use the words “It feels like….” and make significant decisions based on those gut feel moments. Certainly this has long been true in the world of merchandising. Something “feels like” it’s going to be a home run or a dog, and it “feels like” we’d better take a markdown or run a promotion to goose traffic. And actions are taken accordingly.

Now, can I tell a retailer in all honesty to ignore those gut feels? I really can’t. I can encourage them to use data to support actions taken based on those feelings and obviously that’s what I do…every day. But I can’t ask them to ignore their gut completely.

This brings me to the second issue: we don’t always present data in an easily distilled and understandable format. Our retail survey respondents repeatedly ask to have their Business Intelligence delivered in simpler ways. While “red light, yellow light, green light” might be a little too simple for some decisions, the data just has to be usable and quickly actionable.

Finally…if a retailer (or any company really) is going to make such a dramatic shift, it has to be driven from the top. And the C-level exec driving the initiative also has to LISTEN to what he/she is being told in response. Otherwise you get a company similar to Home Depot under Nardelli.  [Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research]

Decisions are always made without perfect information to support them. But sometimes, decisions are made that ignore the available information or decline the implications.

Research is clearly most valuable when it can be turned into actionable recommendations. We are all too aware that research can be used as a fishing expedition without a clear objective. However, there is also a danger in using research designed just to prove a point rather than develop real, new learning.

On balance, I believe that research, properly done, interpreted, and acted upon, can vastly improve the decision making process. [Ray Jones, Managing Director, Dechert-Hampe & Co.]

I’m reminded of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge quote “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Research/knowledge is the raison d’ tre for The Luxury Marketing Council www.floridaluxurycouncil.com; it’s what I do. The highest level executives or those who will someday sit in the corner office recognize the value of research. They’re able to sift through the myriad of information to find what’s relevant and actionable.

There are a couple trends re: research. Some executives don’t want facts to get in the way of their vision. Historically, these individuals’ careers stall. Also, there are many companies that have pared down their employees to the point that executives don’t have time for the facts–they’re too busy keeping the ball moving. The third group often doesn’t understand how to read the research, how it affects them and/or how they can use it for their benefit.

Relevant research is an imperative for retailers. Having a 360 on your targeted customer and understanding their collective experiences is the key to personal and business success. [Chris Ramey, President, Affluent Insights]

Devangshu Dutta mentions many of my personal concerns regarding research. But before I go any further I have to add, my name is Joan and I am a researcher. I’ve spent many years working in the industry to help alleviate some of the barriers Mr. Dutta listed. There is still much to be done of course.

In this world of easy access to numbers/statistics, upper management demands and gets “stuff” by which they make decisions. Trying to explain the difference between good research and everything else often falls on deaf ears. Management expects those who supply the data, whether they are staff or outside consultants, to bring the quality, validity and relevance required. And in turn they do not question the underlying premise of what they are buying, or what they are buying into.

And when forecasts don’t work out as expected, new products fail and marketing strategies are ineffective, it’s all about how research failed to deliver. Researchers preach to the choir when they have meetings about quality standards.

CASRO (Council of American Survey Research Organizations) has a Code of Standards and Ethics. Companies who belong to CASRO must adhere to them. And this is one way in which clients can insure research results are reliable.

CASRO is initiating an ISO certification program. I believe more client companies and executives will relate to and understand ISO (because their own companies go through similar ISO certification processes), perhaps choosing vendors and staff accordingly. In my opinion, this could be a turning point for the acceptance and recognition of true quality marketing research. I hope so.

As for the story telling aspect of research…well that’s another “story” entirely. I’ve mentored many researchers and advised them to always answer three basic questions, What? So what? And Now what? These questions get to the heart of why research is conducted in the first place. Good reporting and presentation requires training. If you believe that anyone can be a researcher and choose vendors or staff based on that assumption, you get what you get and it may fall below the standards Mr. Dutta advocates. [Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC]

During my 11 years with Kenosia I used a phrase with clients “One truth.” By combining disparate data sources, a retailer or a brand manager can get to the “one truth” and then make a business decision regarding direction. Far too often, decisions are made using one source of data which can lead to less than effective results.

Example, if a retailer only views their loyalty data to make business decisions about advertising, are they understanding all the trends happening in their market? Probably not. Combining their loyalty data with demographic data makes it better and adding additional information from a syndicated data provider makes it even better yet.

The great news is, there are a dozen technology solutions to help both retailers and brand managers combine data and the data to combine is available and affordable. It boils down to first understanding the questions and then going out and combining all the best data sets to create the answers. [John Boccuzzi, Jr., Managing Partner, Boccuzzi, LLC]

The use and misuse of research, data and “insights” varies widely across retailers and brands. Typically, the larger the company, the more primary research they have and the more reliant on primary research they are.

Unfortunately, great research and insights are, as many here are illustrating above, not nearly as commonplace as they should be. There are many reasons for this:

– Flawed and biased methodologies (e.g., let’s “Focus Group” this”);

– Vendors who specialize in one research/data collection area over another;

– The research goals and objectives themselves: pure answers to hard marketing questions rarely come directly from research but rather from what is done with it, i.e., what is the data needed to create information to support or disallow a hypothesis?

Budgets, which have mostly seen cuts for the past two years; though the cost of collecting data has come way down in many cases.

All these challenges with research underscore the importance of knowing who your customers are, having an ongoing dialogue and relationship with them, and gleaning insights from them. There is nothing better than customer (transactional) data to gain an objective perspective and insights for your business.

Unfortunately, many companies are data rich and insight poor. Even worse, many companies, retailers included, don’t know their customers or how they behave. This is continuing to change for the better, however, and those who are focused in this area are the ones who will make better decisions and be more successful in the long run. [Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue]

One simple question expresses the confusion around statistics: “Why do we have Democratic and Republican Pollsters?” I think it was Harry Truman who when confronted by economists telling him “Well on one hand the statistics are saying this, but on the other they could mean this” said “Someone get me a one armed economist.”

The thing with retail is that we don’t need answers to thousands of different questions. We ask the same questions a thousand times: how does this product sell, what is its net profit, how important is it to my customers, does it fit my brand objective, how does it relate to other products, are there viable substitutes, etc? Instead of poring over tons of numbers, the POS data should be used to construct answers to questions.

So the fundamental reason retailers (and anyone, really) make bad decisions from raw data is because they don’t know what questions they’re trying to answer. Start there.  [Bill Bittner, President, BWH Consulting]

The fact that information is available and is being used effectively are two separate things! Usually a company uses too much information, regardless of correct or incorrect, or it does not use information. Very few companies strike and maintain a balance between insight, gut feeling/intuition and relevant, timely information in decision making. [Pradip Mehta, Principal, Mehta Consulting, LLC]

I’ve found that the overall views of research within companies goes in cycles. Of course, leadership changes come into play with the research points of view as well. Some executives understand how to use it better. Some have used it so much they can go by gut.

In any case, a research cycle may start when a huge mistake is made by using strictly gut instinct (Tropicana?), then more and more insights will come from research and less from gut until, one day, it is determined that there is too much science and not enough art, and the cycle starts all over again.

I do believe though, that research is one of the faults with our nation’s fashion business today. Too much science, not enough art. The talent and guts it takes to take a big chance on new, fun fashion seems to have been relegated to trend reports, focus groups, ethnography and best seller lists. The rare exception to that rule is Forever21…instincts still survive there. Perhaps they can teach the industry a lesson. [Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners]

Where would Disney be without fairy tales? SMWeiss’

The problem, dear Brutus, is in ourselves. Retailers and brands have created vast action machines with thought paradigms behind. Anyone doing research is likely to be looking to fit information into the existing machine. And for each individual, when they formulate a research query, they bring their own current thinking into it–obviously! This means that the results they get back reflect, in far too great a way, their own predispositions. This, coupled with the fact that lots of research is “ask” type research–interviews–guarantees a sluggish and distorted view of reality, what I call the Picasso business view; shared distortions, unperceived as such by both researchers and respondents.

The partial antidote to this is “observational” type research, and the hierarchy of truth. And observation here must be of the real world, not some laboratory simulation, which typically just further cements the existing distorted paradigm. The hierarchy of truth means distinguishing between what is most rock solid and least likely to be distorted, and that which may be as changeable as the weather. (That’s right, Maude. It used to be just common sense that the weather changes. ; )

One example near and dear to my heart is OBSERVING how many items people buy in a store. The most common number, whether in a convenience store or a supercenter is ONE. But the “world” absolutely refuses to believe this, because it does not match their own conceptions/perceptions. An observation like this is at the pinnacle of retail truth, and must be allowed to shatter any part of the paradigm that does not conform to it. THAT’S “revolutionary,” but it is also the route to racing past the competition that is spending their time dancing on peanut butter.

No one should reproach themselves for participating in a social Picasso view of their business. (Although I may insult you from time to time. ; ) All of us are afflicted with the phenomenon noticed many years ago, about historians and their “research” of the past. Looking into the past, for a historian, is much like looking at a reflecting pool at the bottom of a very deep well. The image the historian tends to come away with is a reflection of himself. Business people are no different. [Herb Sorensen, ScientificAdvisor, TNS Global Retail & Shopper Practice]

There are plenty of great tools to make sense of all of the information. The challenge is balancing it with the human side. Take, for example, the stores. Are all corporate employees required to walk the stores and report what they see? View the stores in the evening when store management has left for the day. These age-old problems are still far too common, yet they are the source of some of the most valuable information available anywhere. Sales will be increased, labor decreased and earnings improved if this information is acted upon. [Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM]

This sounds a lot like a chapter we wrote for ESOMAR’s Best Practices book. We have devalued research in favor of insights, which can rely much more on a good narrative and much less on good data. A management team that expects insights from research all the time is asking for trouble down the road. A research team that doesn’t focus on quality first and insights second is doomed to failure when management makes the wrong moves.
Research needs to give management the best information possible in a way that management can understand it. Management needs to understand that research is providing the best information it can within budget constraints. The two need to work together.
Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations
One of the concerns I have at present is how SKU rationalization research is viewed, so quickly judged, and acted upon. Many retailers are looking only through a narrow interpretation based on shear numbers and not taking into consideration other more visionary factors about specialty brands, niche items, and growth brands. If this keeps up, consumers will have very few choices and most of the stores will all look the same with exact assortments. Only price will differentiate one from the other. The results will be rather ironic.
David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing and Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates
I agree that there is a lot of bad “research” out there in the world. Any analytical study has to be right, applicable, and actionable. If a study doesn’t meet these criteria, it is worse than useless–it can actually pollute the minds of decision makers by letting them think they know something they don’t.
Before spending any valuable share of mind on numbers, executives should ensure:
1) Is it right? If I only had a buck for every time I’ve seen a big name consulting firm presentation with numerical “findings” using a flawed methodology or with no statistical significance…. I’d be retired in Paris right now.
2) Is it applicable? So, some other retailer says their TV spend has a 150% return (or some consultant claims that). So what? Your business is different. Consumers react differently to every retail concept. You do need to know for you.
3) Is it actionable? Oh, we all know about the study designed to validate the CEOs hunch. Want to guess what the consultant’s findings will say? If you are going to do research, you’d better be prepared to act on the findings–either way.
This is why in-market testing is such a powerful technique in retail. While it does take commitment to do it right, it is one of few techniques that almost always meets these criteria.
Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President, APT
It is absolutely true that marketers do not often take the time to understand the basis of the research that they are presented with. Understanding how the research is developed and the analysis approach used to develop recommendations is an important, if misunderstood, part of the job description for a data-driven marketer.
I do find, however, that marketers more often do not carry out sufficient research to draw conclusions, even when that research is relatively easy and low-cost to execute. If you have access to email addresses, you can execute basic research surveys to customers and gain valuable insights in less than a week, at a very low cost. Those opportunities to “fill in the gaps” are often overlooked. Sometimes those insights can make the difference between success and an indifferent failure of a key initiative.
Marketers must understand the opportunities that research affords them, even when timelines are tight. Obtaining the Voice of the Customer, particularly the Best Customer, is a practice that should be followed religiously. Only then will marketers be able to gain insight and make truly data-driven decisions.
Mark Price, Managing Partner, M Squared Group, Inc.
We have to keep in mind that corporations are run by human beings that often make decisions on emotion rather than logic. I have many clients who have been very successful making decisions by shooting from the hip, yet they always prefer to see my research, just to be sure. Most of my clients are very bright people and my research generally confirms their own instinctive thoughts. There have been times when I have been brought in to do an autopsy on a project to find out why a store failed. Typical reasons are:
Researchers did not want to offend management so they candy-coated the results.
Key decision makers are suffering from some kind of physical or emotional impairment which affects their ability.
Corrupt middle managers that change the research results.
Researchers leaving out a key piece of data (i.e. not telling management that the Mexican format store they have planned is in a Puerto Rican neighborhood).
Overall, I don’t think retailers have a narrow view of research. Researchers can do a better job in communication by simplifying the results, being blunt, and putting their integrity ahead of their paycheck.
David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research
I think there are two elements at play here:
First and perhaps foremost, retail is an emotional business. We can have reams of data and still use the words “It feels like….” and make significant decisions based on those gut feel moments. Certainly this has long been true in the world of merchandising. Something “feels like” it’s going to be a home run or a dog, and it “feels like” we’d better take a markdown or run a promotion to goose traffic. And actions are taken accordingly.
Now, can I tell a retailer in all honesty to ignore those gut feels? I really can’t. I can encourage them to use data to support actions taken based on those feelings and obviously that’s what I do…every day. But I can’t ask them to ignore their gut completely.
This brings me to the second issue: we don’t always present data in an easily distilled and understandable format. Our retail survey respondents repeatedly ask to have their Business Intelligence delivered in simpler ways. While “red light, yellow light, green light” might be a little too simple for some decisions, the data just has to be usable and quickly actionable.
Finally…if a retailer (or any company really) is going to make such a dramatic shift, it has to be driven from the top. And the C-level exec driving the initiative also has to LISTEN to what he/she is being told in response. Otherwise you get a company similar to Home Depot under Nardelli.
Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research
Decisions are always made without perfect information to support them. But sometimes, decisions are made that ignore the available information or decline the implications.
Research is clearly most valuable when it can be turned into actionable recommendations. We are all too aware that research can be used as a fishing expedition without a clear objective. However, there is also a danger in using research designed just to prove a point rather than develop real, new learning.
On balance, I believe that research, properly done, interpreted, and acted upon, can vastly improve the decision making process.
Ray Jones, Managing Director, Dechert-Hampe & Co.
I’m reminded of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge quote “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Research/knowledge is the raison d’ tre for The Luxury Marketing Council www.floridaluxurycouncil.com; it’s what I do. The highest level executives or those who will someday sit in the corner office recognize the value of research. They’re able to sift through the myriad of information to find what’s relevant and actionable.
There are a couple trends re: research. Some executives don’t want facts to get in the way of their vision. Historically, these individuals’ careers stall. Also, there are many companies that have pared down their employees to the point that executives don’t have time for the facts–they’re too busy keeping the ball moving. The third group often doesn’t understand how to read the research, how it affects them and/or how they can use it for their benefit.
Relevant research is an imperative for retailers. Having a 360 on your targeted customer and understanding their collective experiences is the key to personal and business success.
Chris Ramey, President, Affluent Insights
Devangshu Dutta mentions many of my personal concerns regarding research. But before I go any further I have to add, my name is Joan and I am a researcher. I’ve spent many years working in the industry to help alleviate some of the barriers Mr. Dutta listed. There is still much to be done of course.
In this world of easy access to numbers/statistics, upper management demands and gets “stuff” by which they make decisions. Trying to explain the difference between good research and everything else often falls on deaf ears. Management expects those who supply the data, whether they are staff or outside consultants, to bring the quality, validity and relevance required. And in turn they do not question the underlying premise of what they are buying, or what they are buying into.
And when forecasts don’t work out as expected, new products fail and marketing strategies are ineffective, it’s all about how research failed to deliver. Researchers preach to the choir when they have meetings about quality standards.
CASRO (Council of American Survey Research Organizations) has a Code of Standards and Ethics. Companies who belong to CASRO must adhere to them. And this is one way in which clients can insure research results are reliable.
CASRO is initiating an ISO certification program. I believe more client companies and executives will relate to and understand ISO (because their own companies go through similar ISO certification processes), perhaps choosing vendors and staff accordingly. In my opinion, this could be a turning point for the acceptance and recognition of true quality marketing research. I hope so.
As for the story telling aspect of research…well that’s another “story” entirely. I’ve mentored many researchers and advised them to always answer three basic questions, What? So what? And Now what? These questions get to the heart of why research is conducted in the first place. Good reporting and presentation requires training. If you believe that anyone can be a researcher and choose vendors or staff based on that assumption, you get what you get and it may fall below the standards Mr. Gutta advocates.
Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC
During my 11 years with Kenosia I used a phrase with clients “One truth.” By combining disparate data sources, a retailer or a brand manager can get to the “one truth” and then make a business decision regarding direction. Far too often, decisions are made using one source of data which can lead to less than effective results.
Example, if a retailer only views their loyalty data to make business decisions about advertising, are they understanding all the trends happening in their market? Probably not. Combining their loyalty data with demographic data makes it better and adding additional information from a syndicated data provider makes it even better yet.
The great news is, there are a dozen technology solutions to help both retailers and brand managers combine data and the data to combine is available and affordable. It boils down to first understanding the questions and then going out and combining all the best data sets to create the answers.
John Boccuzzi, Jr., Managing Partner, Boccuzzi, LLC
The use and misuse of research, data and “insights” varies widely across retailers and brands. Typically, the larger the company, the more primary research they have and the more reliant on primary research they are.
Unfortunately, great research and insights are, as many here are illustrating above, not nearly as commonplace as they should be. There are many reasons for this:
– Flawed and biased methodologies (e.g., let’s “Focus Group” this”);
– Vendors who specialize in one research/data collection area over another;
– The research goals and objectives themselves: pure answers to hard marketing questions rarely come directly from research but rather from what is done with it, i.e., what is the data needed to create information to support or disallow a hypothesis?
Budgets, which have mostly seen cuts for the past two years; though the cost of collecting data has come way down in many cases.
All these challenges with research underscore the importance of knowing who your customers are, having an ongoing dialogue and relationship with them, and gleaning insights from them. There is nothing better than customer (transactional) data to gain an objective perspective and insights for your business.
Unfortunately, many companies are data rich and insight poor. Even worse, many companies, retailers included, don’t know their customers or how they behave. This is continuing to change for the better, however, and those who are focused in this area are the ones who will make better decisions and be more successful in the long run.
Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue
One simple question expresses the confusion around statistics: “Why do we have Democratic and Republican Pollsters?” I think it was Harry Truman who when confronted by economists telling him “Well on one hand the statistics are saying this, but on the other they could mean this” said “Someone get me a one armed economist.”
The thing with retail is that we don’t need answers to thousands of different questions. We ask the same questions a thousand times: how does this product sell, what is its net profit, how important is it to my customers, does it fit my brand objective, how does it relate to other products, are there viable substitutes, etc? Instead of poring over tons of numbers, the POS data should be used to construct answers to questions.
So the fundamental reason retailers (and anyone, really) make bad decisions from raw data is because they don’t know what questions they’re trying to answer. Start there.
Bill Bittner, President, BWH Consulting
The fact that information is available and is being used effectively are two separate things! Usually a company uses too much information, regardless of correct or incorrect, or it does not use information. Very few companies strike and maintain a balance between insight, gut feeling/intuition and relevant, timely information in decision making.
Pradip Mehta, Principal, Mehta Consulting, LLC
I’ve found that the overall views of research within companies goes in cycles. Of course, leadership changes come into play with the research points of view as well. Some executives understand how to use it better. Some have used it so much they can go by gut.
In any case, a research cycle may start when a huge mistake is made by using strictly gut instinct (Tropicana?), then more and more insights will come from research and less from gut until, one day, it is determined that there is too much science and not enough art, and the cycle starts all over again.
I do believe though, that research is one of the faults with our nation’s fashion business today. Too much science, not enough art. The talent and guts it takes to take a big chance on new, fun fashion seems to have been relegated to trend reports, focus groups, ethnography and best seller lists. The rare exception to that rule is Forever21…instincts still survive there. Perhaps they can teach the industry a lesson.
Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners
Where would Disney be without fairy tales?
SMWeiss’
The problem, dear Brutus, is in ourselves. Retailers and brands have created vast action machines with thought paradigms behind. Anyone doing research is likely to be looking to fit information into the existing machine. And for each individual, when they formulate a research query, they bring their own current thinking into it–obviously! This means that the results they get back reflect, in far too great a way, their own predispositions. This, coupled with the fact that lots of research is “ask” type research–interviews–guarantees a sluggish and distorted view of reality, what I call the Picasso business view; shared distortions, unperceived as such by both researchers and respondents.
The partial antidote to this is “observational” type research, and the hierarchy of truth. And observation here must be of the real world, not some laboratory simulation, which typically just further cements the existing distorted paradigm. The hierarchy of truth means distinguishing between what is most rock solid and least likely to be distorted, and that which may be as changeable as the weather. (That’s right, Maude. It used to be just common sense that the weather changes. ; )
One example near and dear to my heart is OBSERVING how many items people buy in a store. The most common number, whether in a convenience store or a supercenter is ONE. But the “world” absolutely refuses to believe this, because it does not match their own conceptions/perceptions. An observation like this is at the pinnacle of retail truth, and must be allowed to shatter any part of the paradigm that does not conform to it. THAT’S “revolutionary,” but it is also the route to racing past the competition that is spending their time dancing on peanut butter.
No one should reproach themselves for participating in a social Picasso view of their business. (Although I may insult you from time to time. ; ) All of us are afflicted with the phenomenon noticed many years ago, about historians and their “research” of the past. Looking into the past, for a historian, is much like looking at a reflecting pool at the bottom of a very deep well. The image the historian tends to come away with is a reflection of himself. Business people are no different.
Herb Sorensen, ScientificAdvisor, TNS Global Retail & Shopper Practice
There are plenty of great tools to make sense of all of the information. The challenge is balancing it with the human side. Take, for example, the stores. Are all corporate employees required to walk the stores and report what they see? View the stores in the evening when store management has left for the day. These age-old problems are still far too common, yet they are the source of some of the most valuable information available anywhere. Sales will be increased, labor decreased and earnings improved if this information is acted upon.
Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

Numbers and Stories

Just after noon, on a weekday, I bumped into a family acquaintance at one of the more successful shopping malls in the city.

The question, “What are you doing here?” was underlined by a mildly accusatory look and the subtext, “Why are you spending a week-day shopping?”

My response that I was “working” wasn’t enough; the further explanation that I was doing “research” received a dismissive smirk and ended the conversation. The fact is that I was repeating the time-honoured ritual of RBWA (research by walking around), with its seemingly aimless strolling, sidelong glances, and possibly turning over a hundred items in a dozen shops without reaching for the wallet even once. This is a ritual that is not taught in our temples of management learning. In fact, it is one of the many tens of methodologies that seem to be missed out during the course of our formal education. And very often, what we do get taught is so remote and opaque to most people that they will promptly forget it the moment they walk out of the examination hall.

I was reminded of this walk-about incident during a conversation with two members of the faculty of a professional institute on the subject of research. Most of their students, I had observed, had a narrow interpretation of research – focussed only on consumers being interrogated through a questionnaire. The students were working from the guidance they had received during the previous semesters at the institute.

Unfortunately, the students are not alone – this is also how too many people identify research, including many executives in decision-making positions. I have been frequently puzzled by the confident (brash?) statement I have heard many times: “We don’t need research.” It is only when I probe further do I, and they, discover that while they perhaps don’t need consumer surveys, there are large gaps in their decision making toolkit which can only be filled by inputs from various other kinds of research.

Sometimes the roots of that statement lie in the perception of research as an impenetrable jungle in which it is easy to get lost but difficult to find something immediately useful. Researchers, like all other vocations, have their own professional shorthand (also known as “jargon”) which they sometimes use to identify their own kind, and perhaps sometimes to exclude people who are not from the trade. Very often this jungle is created by “research-as-a-foreign-language”, which many executives are just too apprehensive or too busy to tackle.

But before you pick up the axe and start cutting away at the creepers of bi-variate analysis, quota samples, correlation and projective techniques, let me give you my very simple definition of research which I like to keep in mind when I am asked the question: “Do we need research?”

To me, research is the discovery and collation of diverse pieces of information from various sources, so that it can be analysed using multiple tools, to discover relationships, patterns and directions that can be used to draw conclusions and take decisions.

There is a purpose for which we would discover or collate that information. There may be a set of questions that we need to answer. We need to understand what are the various places where that information may lie, the different forms it might take or the different ways in which we might need to look at the information before anything useful emerges.

And, in the business context (as in many other situations), research is meant to come up with something that is applicable and directly beneficial to the business. So once we’ve got most of the answers we were looking for, it is certainly useful to stop and apply the newly gained knowledge rather than try to refine and perfect it to the infinite degree.

If this definition of research frames the context well enough for you, then you’re on the way to doing and using research well.

Despite the wealth of information available today, far too many bad business decisions are being made in the absence of good information, either because the executives have not bothered to carry out research, or have not had the capability or the time to question the research which is being presented to them.

Worse – perhaps because of the abundant data and the ease of access to it – today many business decisions that turn bad are taken on the basis of information that is presented by someone else (“secondary research” in research language), without questioning the validity of the conclusions, the structure of the study, the context in which the data was analysed. It’s almost as if we couldn’t be bothered to think, because someone has apparently already done the thinking for us – especially if it comes from a “reputable source”. (Ok, that might be smart sometimes. So let me give you a more graphic analogy – could you think of an adult bird regurgitating pre-digested food to feed the chicks? Hmm, not so pleasant an image after all, is it?)

Also, research (especially the number-oriented kind) seems too dry for most people to take in. And I think that is one place market researchers could do themselves a huge benefit if they could tell the story – especially a story with a moral at the end. That is, create the picture for the user as to what all of that information means in simple language, and also show the user how to use the information in the context of his situation or problem. Bedtime stories during childhood and good movies in adulthood work well because there is a coherent narrative, a start, a middle that is interesting and an ending that stays in the mind. You can see the relationships between the characters, and the consequences of those relationships. A good research project report could be seen as something very similar.

Having said that, of course, there are also some researchers go far beyond, who would never let boring facts get in the way of a good story! Apparently a letter to the editor of the National Observer (London) as far back as 1891 complained: “there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.” (Mark Twain famously paraphrased this in his autobiography as “lies, damned lies and statistics”.)

How many stores can you think of which are located at sites where their chances of success are exactly the same as that of a snowball in hell? How many products or brand launches come to mind, where you wondered, “what is this company thinking?!” Of course, there would have been pre-launch studies which would have showed just how successful these would be, where the stories were possibly based more on imagination than on facts.

For a decision-maker, the only way to tell the difference between bad statistics (lies) and the true story of the market is to make sure that he or she is equipped with multiple sources of information, and various tools with which to analyse them. Also, if you recall my earlier definition of research, the starting point was the definition of the objectives which a research is supposed to fulfil – if the objectives are vague or undefined, so will the research outputs be.

Numbers (quantitative research) and narrative (qualitative research) can tell us many wonderful stories about the market. Some of those stories are highly imaginative “fairy tales” because of a bad study – that shouldn’t lead us to ignore all the others which can direct us to our objectives.

Targeting Mr. Mom

Retailwire.com prompted a discussion on what, if anything, should grocers and other stores be doing to accommodate the growth in stay-at-home dads?According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the recession is putting more men out of work than women, which has led to an increase of stay-at-home dads who are increasingly taking on the traditional women’s roles of childcare, housework, school life, and shopping.

Here’s my contribution to the Dad wishlist: salespeople who don’t look down their noses when asked a (“stupid”) question Mom would never have dreamt of asking. (Also, considering this is the gender that apparently never stops to ask for directions, please treat the question as close to a life-or-death emergency.)