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Shopping with the Subconscious

What is it that pushes us over the line to make that buying decision? What are the things that have to be in place for us to feel comfortable about making the purchase commitment? Retailers (and retail customers also I suspect) realise that to some extent there are always subconscious factors at play; that in the end purchase decisions are rarely the product of rational and objective deliberation. The trouble is, most market research or customer research tools ask customers to try to be objective about their purchase decisions, which must leave open to question the quality of the results, because it isn’t a purely rational process. Many retailers are now looking to new and sophisticated techniques to complement their more traditional methods of research. These new techniques have applications to customer service behaviours, merchandising practice, store design, and even the way information is presented to customers.


In order to understand the gap between traditional methods of data collection and the subconscious drivers at work, let’s start with a question. How well do we understand our own retail experiences? How well do we understand the drivers of our behaviour? I would argue that at best this is an inexact understanding. Sure, we can all raise anger and articulate disappointment when a service is inadequately delivered. But are we as definite about what makes the difference between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ decision when there is no obvious shortfall in the quality of the interaction or proposition. Most of us when pinned down resort to expressions such as ‘it felt right’ or ‘my gut feel was that it was the right decision’. Not much there on which the retailer might base a strategy to improve his or her sales training or store layout.


In fact this lack of surety about our subconscious drivers can force poor results in traditional questionnaire or focus group based studies, particularly when the questioning surrounds the less exact areas of feelings and emotions. The two types of data collection above are known as ‘respondent’ methodologies, because for the most part the shopper ‘responds’ to pre-determined questions or scenarios laid out by the interviewer. Often the structure is more to do with answers thought up by the researcher, and also equally often, the questioning is remote from the actual experience in terms of time and place (exit interviews try to overcome this, but again we are asking customers to have a truly objective understanding of their buying process in order to respond usefully). The outcome can be skewed by respondents trying to post-rationalise their purchase decisions – which may often mean answers that are socially or domestically acceptable, rather than helpful insights into what made the difference.


To understand the drivers of subconscious consumer behaviour, we have to go back to some fundamental psychological principles about how people process their experiences. Throughout our lives we develop filters or schema, which help us understand our experiences to determine if they are good or bad for us. These filters or preferences are then applied subconsciously to any new experiences to help us make sense of them. If a retailer were to be able to detect a commonality of preference in satisfied shoppers, then they could design key aspects of the retail experience so that they would be filtered positively.


There are powerful tests available to retailers based on psychometric principles which allow these preferences to be determined. Researchers believe that these ‘operant’ tests which are less structured, and which rely on skilled linguistic analysis of the customer’s spoken or written experiences, produce more reliable insights into the subconscious behavioural drivers. Also, because the patterns of language are subconscious…they can’t be fudged. Some examples of how these techniques have been used are given below.


A major credit card arm of a retail bank used these new techniques to understand the preferences of customers calling in to the company’s call centres. The customers showed marked preferences in the need to be reassured that they were talking to the right person, and that their query was worthwhile. They also had strong preferences about the level of detail used to impart complex financial information. This key finding was reinforced by the fact that the most successful customer service advisors had natural preferences which complemented these customer requirements. Considerable dissatisfaction occurred if these requirements were missed or ignored, no matter how good the product knowledge of the advisor. The company has now included psychometric profiling in their recruitment process to filter for preferences which naturally complement the customer requirement.


A retail pub management company conducted a similar study to understand the drivers of well being in their establishments. A big component was the customer’s evaluation of the atmosphere of the pub, which was evaluated predominantly through the auditory channel – earlier investments in high quality graphics and signage for the pub interior were found to go largely unnoticed by the customers, and so were scrapped in favour of auditory stimuli such as music. Also, the nature of rapport building between pub staff and customers was also put under scrutiny; it was found that for many customers the pub visit was a welcome escape, they showed an away-from motivation (away from problems at work, away from issues at home). Thus an opening gambit around ‘how are things at work?’ might be counter productive – staff were trained to use different approaches, more focused on activities in the pub, as opposed to outside.


These techniques are meant to complement the traditional methods of customer research, and can work well alongside methodologies used to collect factual and objective data. Some might ask whether this approach could be underhand or manipulative…but the biggest reassurance is that if the retailer gets it right the customer will feel right about the experience. If the customer has spent a lifetime honing their subconscious to make sure they seek out what is good for them, it would be a shame to ignore it.


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