How many times have you observed your customers shopping at a vending bank? Not just casually, but carefully. More than simply watching the activity during a busy lunch period or a 15-minute break.
Have you timed them – from entry to departure with purchase in hand? Did you notice how they reacted when they had a problem or could not find what they wanted?
Have you carefully analyzed the notes you took during the observations – to take action based on what you saw and what you learned?
If you have not done this sort of rigorous customer observation, you're missing out on one of the most important opportunities in managing your business. The process is called "ethnography" – and since you are a retail source of food, snacks and drinks – it is retail ethnography. Knowing how your customers shop and make decisions at the point of sale is not just nice to know – it's an essential ingredient in contemporary sales success.
Retail ethnography takes a hard look at what shoppers are doing at the moment of purchase and explores the factors driving them to one particular brand or another. It is alive and in real time – usually video-recorded for later analysis.
Most other methods of customer research like phone surveys and focus groups depend on shoppers' ability to recall what they did or to speculate on the future. Retail ethnography, on the other hand, captures and analyzes the actual buying situation.
The purpose of this article is to encourage support for an ethnography study in vending. The authors of this article are part of a team that sees some tangible benefits for all players in vending, operators and suppliers alike.
Building on existing customer research
The National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) sponsored an excellent consumer survey conducted by Harris Interactive that Automatic Merchandiser Magazine reported on extensively in its January issue. The most important finding is that consumers don't view vending as having a high value.
Many vending industry members wondered why a survey was needed to confirm this perception.
Some of the more insightful members noted that the survey did not provide sufficient context. In other words, is it fair to ask how consumers view the value of the vending machine when we don't really know how people use vending machines any more?
Hasn't the consumer changed in ways that might change what they need from vending machines?
Vending consumers: how well do we know them?
Ten years ago, Frito Lay sponsored a study that examined some of these issues. That study, titled "The Winds Of Change," identified different types of vending machine shoppers, based on their consumption habits and buying motivations. It was an excellent study, but it is now 10 years old. A lot has happened in convenience retailing since then.
The vending industry's retail competitors are addressing changing consumer needs very aggressively, which is why they are introducing cashless transactions and self-serve order kiosks.
This article will review how some of our competitive channels are using ethnography to improve their customer service. Hopefully, this will strengthen the case for an ethnography study for the vending industry.
Hy Mariampolski's new book, "Ethnography for Marketers," asserts, "Ethnography provides behavioral as well as attitudinal data. It pays attention to what consumers actually do as opposed to what they say or wish to have done." This can involve a "shop-along" with a researcher or an intercept interview to understand what is going on in the consumer's mind in context, in addition to video recording.
Focusing on the customer rather than pushing a particular technology or product has become the key to contemporary marketing.
Consumer product firms are there
Companies such as Proctor & Gamble Co. and McDonald's Corp. are using retail ethnography to develop new products, improve existing products and change the way they serve their customers.