Retailing: Where art meets science

Great retailers are often artists at heart.

Despite the necessary and critical focus (particularly recently) on the numbers, retailing is fundamentally about the skill of the merchant and the ability to appeal to a customer’s heart over her head. If you’re going to be a successful retailer, it’s as important to know your way around a store as a spreadsheet.

Meanwhile our supplier partners have traditionally been the “scientists of selling”. They’ve based their new product introductions and in-store displays on volumes of research and analysis, aided by floors full of strategists and planners, and often backed up by global studies.

I believe that it’s time to start bringing art and science more closely together. As retailers, we need to start learning from our suppliers and we need to embrace more of their strategic frameworks. In particular it’s time for retailers to mine the emerging science of “shopper marketing”.

Manufacturers used to concentrate purely on the “consumer”. In more recent years though, they’ve turned their attention to the shopper, because often the upfront shopper and the end consumer are two different beasts, and guess which one has the wallet?

Shopper marketing is all about understanding the “path to purchase” and how you might start to influence a sale from the moment that a customer need arises, all the way through to the cash register and beyond. How do you ensure that your brand is front-of-mind in the first place, that the customer is directed to the right point of purchase, that they actually put your product in their basket and finally feel good about the whole experience afterwards?

Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies are spending vast sums on getting shopper marketing down to a fine art, and we could all learn from what they are doing. As an example, I recently read an illuminating white paper by Ken Barnett, global CEO of shopper marketing agency Mars Advertising.

In the article, Barnett writes that it is critical to understand a shopper’s “need-states”; the most common ones “driven by time, money, care for family and care for self.”

Expanding on this notion, Barnett says marketers should move beyond a demographic understanding of customers to a needs-based segmentation. For example in the home improvement category, it is more helpful to recognise that there are two types of shoppers – “planners” and “taskers” – and how those states change their buying behaviour, than it is to know age and socio-economic profiles.

Barnett goes on to outline that there are “only three objectives for path-to-purchase marketing: (to get) on the list; in the cart and in the heart.” Behind this elegantly simple phrase is a whole playbook on generating brand awareness and preference; turning browsers into buyers in the store; and building a post-purchase emotional bond between the customer and your brand.

How do you get hold of pertinent shopper marketing information for your category? Simple. Ask your suppliers.

Over the years, I’ve found that, in the spirit of partnership, manufacturers are happy to share their market segmentation data and customer behaviour findings. And if they don’t have it, they may be willing to fund a study.

I’m all for intuition when it comes to retail. But it doesn’t hurt to bolster instinct with facts and frameworks, particularly today when the way customers behave is less predictable than ever.

Jon Bird is CEO of specialist retail marketing agency IdeaWorks and Chairman of Octomedia, publisher of Inside Retail. Email [email protected]. For more retail insights and inspiration, visit


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