Shopping Spies


Andy Greenfield, president of Greenfield Marketing Consultants, is setting the scene for me:

“You’re standing at the salad bar, Carrie, so I sidle up next to you. You’re looking at the chicken and broccoli, then you look on, and I mumble something like, ‘Gee, I was thinking of having that chicken and broccoli,’ and you say something like, ‘Look, that broccoli is kinda wilted.’ Then we sorta go along and I see you dip the ladle into the macaroni and cheese and I say, ‘Gee, what’s the story with that?’ You might say, ‘Man, I love the cheese. It looks fresh and hot and steeeamy….”‘

Andy sounds like he’s salivating. For a second, I feel like the star of my own commercial. An unappetizing, dreamlike, and (thank god) transient moment where roles are reversed: I’m not the audience–the marketing guy is.

This is how Andy conducts his business: buddying up to people in public and secretly tapping their unconscious. Greenfield has coined a term for his research–studying “naked behavior.” “In an ideal world, I’d actually be in your head,” says Greenfield, “and I’d understand that what Carrie is looking for in a deodorant is something a little bigger with a better grip on it.” He continues, “What we’re doing is enabling manufacturers to better meet the real needs of the consumer.”

Funny how such a studied observer of consumer behavior could overlook a pretty basic truth–any company spending that much money, time, and energy on my psyche must not have a product worth buying. That is, my so-called needs only bear such intense scrutiny when the differences between deodorants don’t matter. The products may all be more or less the same, Greenfield might as well say, but people still aren’t!

Other marketers call studying naked behavior “ethnography” or “anthropological studies”–studying consumers in their “natural” environments (shopping malls, fast-food joints, video shops, department stores, homes). Regardless of the term, the work is part of the ever-burgeoning field of qualitative research. With qualitative research, the consumer isn’t just a number, she’s a complex set of attitudes, lifestyle preferences, and values.

The primary tools of qualitative research have typically been in-depth, one-on-one, and group interviews (focus groups). Trouble is, the tools aren’t working. For one thing, humans overreport good behavior and underreport bad. Moms will say they give Junior fruit and whole wheat for lunch when they actually dole out Doritos. Often interviewees don’t even realize they’re lying. Outside of focus groups, these issues aren’t things they think about much. And that’s another problem: focus groups measure conscious rather than the decisive unconscious responses.

Further complicating matters, people have grown familiar with the concept of focus groups, so they try to anticipate marketing strategies. Interviewees are made conscious not only of buying decisions but of the marketers’ consciousness of their consciousness. Which, for a marketer, sucks. As they say in the biz, “focus groups are not the real world.” (In the real world, marketers follow people around with notepads, tape recorders, and video cameras.)

Paco Underhill is, like Greenfield, a market researcher who thinks “out of the box” (in this case, “under the table”). Underhill’s company, Envirosell, uses hidden video cameras to study shopping behavior. To pick up subtleties, undercover researchers trail individual customers, taking note of facial expressions and nuances. Later, a second researcher will approach the customers and ask them for a brief interview. Do these shoppers ever catch on?

“If a person has any indication they are upsetting someone, they are simply to turn around and walk away,” says Underhill.

In other words, yes, but, he assures me, “Our intention is not to disturb people.”

Naturally, Envirosell doesn’t want to disturb people. The goal is to conduct research without subjects even noticing. Telemarketers and annoying mall surveyors are bad news, says Underhill; their jarring, invasive approach is downright disrespectful.

But what’s worse, they’re not very effective. In the same way a bad actor makes the audience notice the acting, a bad marketer calls attention to the process. “Ideally,” says Greenfield, “you want the technique to be transparent.”

Although media attention hasn’t exactly kept them invisible, a burgeoning breed of “cool hunters” operate under similar principles. These marketers don’t just study the cool kids, they hang out, videotape, and parrot the cool kids. In their book, Street Trends: How Today’s Alternative Youth Cultures Are Creating Tomorrow’s Mainstream Markets, consultants Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca seem determined to erase the boundaries between researcher and researchee. At times, it’s difficult to tell whether they’re writing about youth culture or marketing:

“The new modernity is all about unity, the coming together in a collective thinking, a collective unity of street cultures to better their situation, seize control of their future, bringing all the creative and progressive heads together to form one collective vibe.”

Misdom and De Luca are hardly alone. Record companies such as BMG, Sony, and Virgin sponsor inner-city word-of-mouth, enlisting cool urban kids as de facto publicists who work in “street teams.” Experimental qualitative research is becoming de rigueur among corporations targeting youth, who are considered to be too cynical and too media savvy (or numb) to be reached by any other means.

But according to Underhill, consumer resistance varies not so much by age as by region and zip code. The educated and wealthy are less willing to, say, speak to a researcher. “Whereas if I stop someone in a blue-collar city in the South to talk about beer, they’re delighted,” says Underhill.

The purchasing power of blue-collar workers is limited, however. Therein lies a catch-22: The people marketers most want to reach–the culturally influential and wealthy–are the hardest to reach.

In a way, marketers are their own worst enemy. The more a technique–be it survey, focus group, or promotion–is used, the less effective it becomes. The most desirable consumers have had so many marketers vying for their attention, they’ve adjusted their behavior accordingly. They’re less likely to talk to telemarketers or in-store researchers, fill out surveys, or give out personal data. Call it consumer revenge or savvy or cynicism, but that response helps drive a perpetual tug-of-war between buyer and seller. The more strategies marketers try, the more they need to try.

But consumer revenge has a side effect–adapting means tuning out. People avoid certain aisles in the grocery store when the kids come along, zap television commercials, screen phone calls in the dinner hours when telemarketers are likely to call.

But what happens when those boundaries of time and place are erased? When anyone, anywhere, at any time could be studying you to make a buck? When consumer savvy means mistrusting everyone?

Underhill has an “ethical problem with practices that invade privacy.”

“I could call someone up right now and get your bank and credit balance, your driving record, grades in school, and almost no one is addressing that,” he says. Envirosell isn’t the problem. “[Our] image of Big Brother has given us an excuse to look at what is overt in our culture rather than what is truly covert.”

Call it an unintended benefit of the perpetual tug-of-war: marketers can always count on a bigger bad guy. Although in this case, Underhill must’ve missed the Time cover story, multiple New York Times reports, and just about the bulk of privacy scaremongering that suggest his concepts of “overt” and “covert” are upside down. While discussion of privacy issues focuses almost entirely on isolated personal intrusions–Kitty’s boss reads her e-mail, John’s bank account gets hacked–institutionalized, “unobtrusive” research by the likes of Underhill and Greenfield slips by under the cloak of anonymity. These people don’t necessarily need your name or address (at least not for now; not until their techniques become the new standard and it’s time to push further) they just need your brain. And since focus groups aren’t the real world, they’re working damn hard to make the real world a focus group.

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