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Technology in the Aisles

August 15, 2012


Manufacturers try almost anything they can to get shoppers to pay attention to the products they offer on store shelves. For example, “marketers know vintage clothes and retro art sell well. Now, consumer-product companies are hoping that appeal carries over to cereal, chips and laundry detergent.” [“New! Improved! (and Very Old),” by Sarah Nassauer, Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2011] Nassauer continued:

“Procter & Gamble Co., General Mills Inc., Hostess Brands Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. are pulling old package designs out of their archives for brands like Tide, Cheerios and Doritos and bringing them back to store shelves. Smaller companies and start-ups are using fonts, colors or designs that evoke the past on their labels. The move is a U-turn from labels cluttered with specific claims like ‘easy pour spout’ or ‘better tasting’ to packaging that plays on the emotions.”

Interestingly, Nassauer indicates that technology (specifically, computer design) was one of the reasons that “labels have gotten busier.” Computers, she wrote, “allowed for complex designs and marketers wanted products to stand out on crowded shelves.” She continued:

“The retro movement is driven, in part, by consumer-goods companies feeling pressure from retailers’ private-label products, which are generally less expensive. ‘Brands are saying, wait a minute, we invented that category,’ so they are now reminding consumers which brand came first, says Steve McGowan, executive creative director at Landor Associates, a branding firm owned by WPP PLC that worked on the Tide and Downy retro designs. Manufacturers also say they are hoping to benefit from consumers’ generally sunny impression of the past and stand out in a sea of modern, glossy packages.”

It might seem strange that companies would look to the past to secure their future; but, it seems to be working. To make her point, Nassauer relates the experience of PepsiCo. She wrote:

“In 2009, PepsiCo introduced retro cans that touted real sugar, not corn syrup, with designs from the 1970s and 1980s. The products spurred a wave of email and interaction on social-media websites like Facebook, says Amy Wirtanen, senior director of marketing for PepsiCo Beverages America. Most significantly, by 2009, data showed that more than 50% of the people who purchased the retro product bought more than they normally would have, they didn’t buy other Pepsi products or they didn’t buy other carbonated drinks, says Ms. Wirtanen. ‘We are getting new customers,’ she says.”

Unfortunately, going retro doesn’t always work. Nassauer reported that, when Kraft “produced a retro look for the 2009 redesign of its Miracle Whip brand, incorporating elements of the brand’s original label from 1933, … younger customers didn’t like it.” Companies want products that sell well because they improve the chances of grabbing more space on store shelves. With only a finite amount of shelf space available, the battle for space can be fierce. To complicate matters, Cynthia Coulbourne, global retail portfolio leader at IBM, “notes that many households now consist of several generations and shoppers may be buying for their parents or for grown children or grandchildren. ‘If a retailer looks at data from a loyalty program, it may be hard to know what the information really represents,’ she says.” [“Incorporating Consumer Behavior Into Retail Decisions,” SupplyChainBrain, 27 June 2011] For more on that topic, read my post entitled Changing Tastes in Food are Challenging Food Providers.


Coulbourne points out that when it comes to technology in the aisles, “average consumers are using two or more technologies in the shopping process. They may use the internet at home or at work to look for products, then in the store they use mobile phones to take and send photos of products and to compare prices online.” For some stores, like Target and Best Buy, this trend is unwelcome (see my posts entitled Showrooming and Product Customization and The Battle Against “Showrooming” Continues. Other stores are counting on technology to help them keep customers coming through the doors. For example, Alicia Clegg reported last year that the British supermarket chain Waitrose had partnered with a firm called “Eyetracker to demonstrate equipment that measures every movement of a shopper’s eyes.” [“Eyes in the aisles reveal shopping secrets,” Financial Times, 17 February 2012] Clegg reported that the “cyborg-style headgear” that shoppers are asked to wear “was initially developed to give combat pilots a split-second advantage in dogfights.” She continued:

“Nowadays, it is high-street brands that are experimenting with its possibilities as they battle for the attention of time-pressed consumers. Richard Davies, senior vice-president of consumer and market insight at Unilever, the fast-moving consumer goods group, which has an in-house eye-tracking capability, says studying how people’s eyes flit about has helped the company design packs that make its shampoos and detergents more noticeable on the supermarket shelf. When asked what they have just looked at during a shopping trip, most people forget details or mix them up; but their eyes tell the true story of what they looked at and what they missed, where they went into the wrong aisle and the point they gave up hunting. ‘If they don’t see the pack they want, they move on,’ Mr Davies says.”

Manufacturers and retailers are looking for any competitive edge they can get and Clegg wrote that eye-tracking systems are just the latest tools in the kit. She continued:

“[Nick Williams, a qualitative researcher from Ipsos Mori], says eye tracking helps researchers ask ‘better questions’. Even trivial details lead to insights when caught on film and played back. … Chris Hall, head of research at JC Decaux, the outdoor advertising group, says it has used eye tracking to explore how digital ad panels attract the eyes of passengers waiting for flights at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. But it has not yet tried the technology to assess response to advertising outside supermarkets.”

According to Emily Glazer, eye-tracking technology is now being used in U.S. supermarkets as well. [“The Eyes Have It: Marketers Now Track Shoppers’ Retinas,” Wall Street Journal, 12 July 2012] She writes:

“Consumer-products companies are turning to new technology to overcome the biggest obstacle to learning what shoppers really think: what the shoppers say. It turns out consumers aren’t a very reliable source of information about their own preferences. Academic research has shown focus-group subjects try to please their testers and overestimate their interest in products, making it hard to get a read on what works. But getting testing right is crucial for consumer-products companies because they ship high volumes and lack direct contact with shoppers. To find out what really draws their test shoppers’ attention, companies like Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever PLC and Kimberly-Clark Corp. are combining three-dimensional computer simulations of product designs and store layouts with eye-tracking technology. And that, in turn, is helping them roll out new products faster and come up with designs and shelf layouts that boost sales.”

The wrinkle here is that computer simulations are being used to do what Waitrose is doing in real stores. Glazer explains:

“Kimberly-Clark’s researchers used computer screens outfitted with retina-tracking cameras when testing the newest packaging for its Viva paper towels in 2009, says Kim Greenwood, senior manager in the company’s Virtual Reality Group. Their goal was to find which designs got noticed in the first 10 seconds a shopper looked at a shelf—a crucial window when products are recognized and placed in the shopping cart. They also wanted to know if the preferences held up on different count packages, from single rolls to multipacks. By measuring the shopper’s response to different designs, Kimberly-Clark deciphered what caught shoppers’ attention, the most common starting point and the viewing sequence.”

Glazer reports that “psychology and marketing professors say people often don’t realize what draws their eyes or how they truly feel about a product.” But apparently they don’t have lying eyes. Steve Posavac, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, told Glazer, “There’s often a big disconnect between what people want to do and what they say they want to do.” Glazer reports that “researchers have watched test consumers’ eye movements for clues to their thinking since the early 1900s.” However, they really didn’t have the technology to perform the task with the same kind of effectiveness as today’s researchers. Today, Glazer reports, technology can “actually track retinas to get a true fix on where people are looking, for how long and how often.” She continues:

“That information has helped dispel myths about what really matters in design. For instance, there’s a persistent fallacy among some companies that a bigger picture on a package is better, says Michel Wedel, professor of consumer science at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He says that retina-tracking research shows the eye can process pictures so quickly that size doesn’t necessarily matter.”

Glazer reports that with costs for using retina-tracking technology falling, its use is likely to become more commonplace. As it does, it will pump out more data for computers to crunch as companies seek a competitive edge in their battle for more shelf space. Massimo Bongiovanni, CEO of Cooperative Consumers Coop, told McKinsey & Company analysts that he predicts other technologies will also be used to get consumers into shopping aisles. He told them, “I foresee is the adoption of multimedia technology at the point of sale, to make the shopping experience more interactive and more dynamic for customers. … we envision the ability to display multiple offers and events at each point of sale during the course of a single day. We also want to massively enhance our ability to do customer profiling. We could combine profiling with new technologies, such as iPhones, apps, and other mobile devices. All of this would allow us to engage in new interactions with customers at the point of sale, creating a dialogue about new products, pricing, offers, et cetera. Customers will have new reasons for coming to our stores.” [“How a grocery giant puts technology at the center of innovation,” McKinsey Quarterly, December 2011] The bottom line is that more technology is going to be found in the aisles whether its brought in by consumers or provided by manufacturers or retailers.

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