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Understanding today's erratic shoppers

New research hints at a way to tame customers and get them to spend more

Researchers who study wolves will tell you they still have a lot to learn about the animals. That’s understandable. Wolves don’t like people and they don’t make a habit of hanging around when humans drop by.

Shoppers are another matter. They don’t hide. They traipse through stores in plain sight.

So why do we seem to know less about shoppers than wolves? Maybe it’s because wolves act the way they do for good reason. Shoppers, in comparison, are downright unpredictable.

One thing that’s confounded experts is the path shoppers take through a store. It’s completely erratic!

READ: When grocery stores meet the supercentre

Another is the correlation between trip length and unplanned purchases. In other words, how much more money will people spend for every additional step they take through the store? Knowing more would help retailers better plan their promotions.

Thankfully, some new research may hold answers.

A group of marketing professors from New York University, the University of Pittsburgh, Drexel University and the University of Texas recently set up an experiment in which they attached belts with RFID tags to 275 grocery shoppers at a supermarket in the U.S. northwest.

That allowed researchers to track their movement throughout the store and to compare what shoppers purchased with what was on their shopping list.

On average, the shoppers travelled about 1,400 feet inside the grocery store. That’s about a quarter of a mile. The average amount spent on unplanned purchases was $16, or roughly 40 per cent of their total spend.

Not surprisingly, the longer a shopper was in the store, the more they bought. In this case, the researchers calculated that increasing trip length by 10 per cent, or 140 feet, would lead to a 16.1 per cent hike, or $2.54 for each shopper.

However, the researchers did find one noteworthy problem: Though the shoppers they tracked certainly did a lot of walking, they still only covered, on average, 37 per cent of the store.

If that number holds true across the industry, grocery shoppers are missing nearly two-thirds of the store. That’s not good. Fortunately, technology might come to the rescue.

One thing I’ve yet to mention is the name of the researchers’ study: “The Effect of In-store Travel Distance on Unplanned Spending: Applications to Mobile Promotion Strategies.” It’s that last part, “mobile,” that holds considerable promise.

That’s because in addition to tracking shoppers with RFID tags, the researchers did a second experiment. This one, conducted at a grocery store in Pittsburgh, simulated how much more people might be willing to spend if coupons were sent to their smartphone as they shopped.

Again, the findings are fascinating. In the Pittsburgh store, mobile coupons increased the overall amount of shoppers’ unplanned purchases by 16 per cent.

What’s interesting is that the farther shoppers were led into the store for couponed products, the more they spent. The average amount shoppers spent if they had to walk far to get the item was $21.29. But if the item was already close to their location in the store, they spent less, $13.83.

One of the researchers, Sam Hui, a marketing professor at NYU, describes the research as a roadmap for retailers to target promotions like never before. He may be right. Though in-store mobile marketing is still brand new, the tools to make it happen are already around us.

Shoppers can already check into a store when they enter using the social media site Foursquare, and their shopping lists can be posted to a number of apps.

Once retailers are able to compile all this information, they’ll have the ability to send shoppers targeted promotions to help grow sales. Maybe then, we’ll truly understand what makes shoppers tick.

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