MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

The Consumer Shop-Along | March 30, 2011

In the web-dependent 21st century, it’s safe to assume that typical consumers have access to a wealth of information about products, stores and sales — but one major question remains: do they actually use it? Believers in the rational choice theory, which depicts buyers as logical in their assessment of costs versus benefits, would say that they do; others aren’t so confident in humans as a reflective and discerning race. Dan Ariely, for instance, an MIT professor and the author of Predictably Irrational, contends that myriad outside factors propel consumers to act nonsensically in the marketplace. Perhaps they’re managing their own social image with clothing purchases; perhaps they’re shopping in an emotional state that comprises their otherwise clearheaded nature; or perhaps they’ve fallen victim to retail tricks like the decoy product — an expensive good not intended for actual sale but meant to make other items seem more attractive for their lower price and similar quality. To get to the heart of these matters, behavioral psychologists use creative, onsite research methods that go beyond the laboratory limits of focus groups and surveys — one of which is the shop-along, which involves in-depth interviews with shoppers as they shop in real-world retail environments.
Earlier this month, students in the the MHB program’s Applied Research Methods class, which examines the quantitative strategies common in consumer studies, conducted mock shop-alongs at the Beverly Center in West Hollywood. For the purposes of this project (see above), students evaluated their classmates’ reports on their shopping experiences. The audience consisted of females ages 20 to 35 who were shopping at any of four target stores: Forever 21, Steve Madden, Coach and Aveda. Qualities that contributed to positive shopping experiences — as well as negative shopping experiences when they were not present — are outlined below.

Store items are organized, and easy to find/sample
It is of utmost importance that samples and trial products are provided, which allows consumers to test their preferences in real time. Mirrors and benches to try on shoes and accessories guarantee a welcoming environment. Fitting rooms are also a crucial element in any retail location: not only should they be abundant, there should also be an easy-to-see attendant to let customers in and out as necessary.

Store items are in view and within reach
Products should not be placed on high shelves or on the floor, unless it’s clear they’re for display only.

Stores display appropriate signage
Sales signs need to be accurate and visually appealing. New products or packaging should be pointed out, and stores should list sales and their end dates so that customers are swept up in the energy of buying an item as not to miss out on a deal.

Store employees demonstrate good customer service
A store’s employees define the consumer shopping experience, which they should consider a full-service job. They should greet customers and offer help upon entry, as well as explaining promotions, sales and options for buying products online. Employees should also inform customers about product changes or the introduction of new products, and they should make sure not to pressure clients into purchases.

Layout contributes positively to the experience
A store’s lighting should be pleasant, and it should allow customers to see items clearly. Music should be played at an appropriate volume and shouldn’t distract from conversation, decision making or the overall shopping experience. Isle space should be provided for larger bags and strollers — remember that customers often shop in packs — and sit-down space should be provided throughout the store. If the store is smaller, a simple and clean design is the easiest way to combat a lack of space; if larger, it should allow plenty of room for consumers and avoid a cluttered appearance.



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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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