NEW YORK — If they expect their businesses to flourish into the next decade, apparel retailers will need to shift their gazes off the rack so they can spend more time focusing on the consumer.

That’s the way Retail Forward executive vice president Dan Stanek sees it.

With people shopping less frequently and making shorter shopping trips than they did in the Nineties, it has become crucial for merchants to better understand their customers —especially since two-thirds of purchase decisions are made while shopping, Stanek told an audience of several hundred retailers at Retail Forward’s 2003 Strategic Outlook Conference. The event was held this month at the Crowne Plaza Manhattan.

In order to gain a more intimate knowledge of people’s shopping behavior and feelings about their customer experience, Stanek counseled retailers to conduct projective, or nonverbal, research. Such methods have long been used by packaged-goods brands but the stores are just beginning to apply them. Those techniques include:

Game Nights: When launching its Todd Oldham Dorm Room line, Target Stores held game nights with high school graduates in a bid to understand their emotions about moving away from home for the first time. The resulting discovery of laundry phobia led to laundry bags imprinted with instructions on how to do the washing.

Dog’s-eye View: Seeing the shopping process through a third party, like a child or pet, for a fresh perspective. For example, dog owners sat on the floor of a PetsMart with their animals to develop a dog’s-eye view, which spurred the creation of different "worlds" dogs and their owners could explore together.

Collaging: Motorola and Burger King are among the brands that have had people arrange images and words to portray feelings about products, marketing images and shopping, including points of pleasure and pain during their customer journey.

Hypnosis: The Jenny Craig weight-loss program used a certified hypnotist to elicit people’s early childhood memories of being overweight, in order to produce more effective ads and product information.

While those methods may seem unreliable, Stanek maintained they are more evocative of people’s emotions and motivations than focus groups, which nonetheless continue to snag most of the funds business spends on qualitative research — about $1.1 billion in 2001, according to Inside Research, a Chicago-based market research newsletter. As focus groups and other traditional market research rely on verbal expression, Stanek said, they can’t mine consumers’ deepest feelings about how and why they shop.Also useful in that regard, Stanek advised, is ethnographic research, yet it got just 10 percent of the $1.1 billion spending on qualitative research in 2001. This anthropological method aims to reveal how people shop or use a product, in context.

Brands that have used ethnographic research include Moen, Acuvue and Gap. Moen hired nudists and watched them shower, in order to improve the brand’s bath fixtures. After discovering people spend a lot of time with their eyes closed while showering, Moen developed a showerhead that’s easier to adjust by feel. Acuvue also invaded bathrooms to observe the gyrations people perform to put in contact lenses. The mission? To develop accessories to aid the process. And a shop-along with Gap customers uncovered the intimidation they felt whengreeted by employees in a store’s entry, as the shoppers were still getting oriented to the space. So, Gap began greeting shoppers farther back in the store.

An insightful understanding of shoppers’ motivations, Stanek noted, has become essential to execute two strategies that have become critical: differentiating store nameplates and improving the shopping experience. With so many national brands now available across retail channels, shoppers visit particular stores primarily because of convenient locations and good prices. The rub for retailers is there’s a limited upside in working those attributes: Stores could price-promote themselves out of business and store locations are fixed.

The solution, Stanek emphasized, lies in applying projective research to establish emotional connections between stores and customers, thus offering shoppers an experience that’s relevant and difficult to replicate. "Merchants still have a product-driven perspective that stems from their reliance on the cash register as a research tool," said Stanek in referring to point-of-sale data. "Their perspective needs to become consumer-driven — cognizant of how and why people buy, not just what they buy."

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