x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The prying game: the psychology of shopping

What makes you pick up a particular item in the supermarket after a few moments of hesitation?

Marcus Evans explores what turns consumers into shoppers, a distinction that makes the difference between hovering over an item and buying it.
Marcus Evans explores what turns consumers into shoppers, a distinction that makes the difference between hovering over an item and buying it.

I'm lonely. I can't sleep. The only one who really understands me is my cat. As a rule, people tend to avoid broadcasting these kinds of intimate details in public - at least, that is, until they start filling up their supermarket trollies. This is why, waiting in the checkout line, we are so often transfixed by the items creeping along the conveyor belt, which (we imagine) combine to create the outline of a personal narrative: tub of ice cream, camomile tea, gourmet kitty food...

For most of us, supermarket snooping is a bit of fun, something we do to pass the time. For Marcus Evans, it's a job. Evans, 48, is the managing director of Integer, a shopper marketing agency in Dubai. The remit of his company, as he explains it, is to "explore the moment when the consumer turns into the shopper". To the untrained ear, this might sound like a quibbling distinction. Evans, though, insists that it is the pivot on which the world of commerce turns.

Integer doesn't represent the most glamorous branch of the marketing game. Where advertising creatives like to see themselves as the poets of the industry, shopper marketers are more like the plumbers, doing the nitty-gritty work of keeping the cash flowing. But there is a kind of longshoreman pride that goes along with this. "We change attitude into action," Evans says. "You can have the most beautiful branding in the world, but if people don't pick your product off the shelves, it's a waste of time."

The foundation of the work Integer does, Evans says, is research, and that research is rooted in psychology. He's interested in exploring how people's values, temperaments and living situations affect their shopping habits. This involves rooting around in their homes, following them as they shop, asking endless streams of whats and whys. Then, using the stuff he learns, he advises clients on things like placement, packaging and logo design. And when he's out shopping for himself, Evans is still watching, paying special attention to what he calls "the hovering hand."

The hovering hand is a recurrent theme with Evans, enough so that you wonder if the image keeps him up at night. "You'll see a shopper standing in front of a shelf and their hand will hover over a product," he says. "Then that hand will move somewhere else." Evans has spent the bulk of his 22-year career trying to pick apart the entanglements of human behaviour - at least as it exists in the point-of-sale environment - so that he might in some way guide it. "What we need to do is understand the processes the mind goes through," he says, "so we can make the hand not only hover over a product, but pick it up."

Right now, Evans is conducting research into the lifestyle preferences of a particular brand's target consumer. The idea is to create promotional displays that evoke the social settings in which these people might consume the product - a ploy, he hopes, that will generate an unconscious desire to buy it. If this sounds a little Clockwork Orange-y, Evans insists that he has the consumer's interests at heart. "We're not trying to alter people's behaviour drastically," he says. "We're trying to make it easier for them to do what they want to do."

For Evans, even the most minor detail can be transformed into a profound and profitable insight. One of his favourite stories concerns a US beverage company that, in the evenings, placed its products next to the diaper display in a large retail chain, on the understanding that diapers bought after 7pm tend to be emergency purchases, that these purchases are often made by men, and that men will feel they deserve a reward for having performed this feat. "Sales of both brands skyrocketed," he says with a baleful smile, the expression of a man who wishes he'd thought of that.

Despite the ingenuity involved in this sort of psychological sleight of hand, and the billions of dollars that have been poured into so-called psychometric research, shoppers have remained stubbornly autonomous creatures. In the three decades since psychology first gained traction in the marketing industry, efforts to crawl into the heads of consumers have taken on countless forms, from measuring pupil dilation to conducting roar-like-a-lion role-playing exercises.

Market research used to be a more straightforward affair, relying on questions like "How do you feel about Brand A?" Today, this approach is generally greeted with scorn. Just as therapists aren't supposed to ask patients to comment on the oedipal issues that have prevented them from forming meaningful relationships, the argument goes, marketers shouldn't ask consumers what they think about brands. Instead, you ask what they would say to this brand if they met it on the street, what kind of animal this brand would be. Get them to do a brand-inspired dance. Only then do you arrive at the truth.

"The idea is that people don't always know what they think, and that they aren't as capable of introspection as you might hope," says Kamal Dimachkie, managing director at Leo Burnett in Dubai, an agency that, like many others, has developed a psychometric research tool. "You rely on psychological analysis to figure out the inner workings of a person." Clients love this sort of talk. They love the charts dividing consumers into categories (Thinkers, Doers, Loners, Followers). And they love the inscrutable jargon that psychometrics people use - the authenticating acts, attitudinal segments and contextual landscapes. The appeal of the discipline can be traced back to an old industry quip: "I know that half of my advertising is wasted, I just don't know which half." Clients want better odds than this. What they'd really like is scientific certainty. And psychometrics has promised to give it to them.

Not everybody in the industry, however, is a believer. "It's psychobabble," says Peter Vegas, creative director at Impact BBDO in Abu Dhabi. "What they're getting at is this: it's good to have a brand people like. This isn't rocket science." To some extent, Evans would agree. He's is a bit more old-school than many of his peers, and he has no qualms about asking people how they feel about Brand A. Certainly, the question of whether Nokia could beat Samsung in a fistfight doesn't interest him.

Evans is an empiricist, a watcher. Combine what you see with a dash of common sense and intuition, he says, and you have everything you need. One afternoon, he takes me on a field trip to a Dubai hypermarket, so I might see the simple approach in action. What we're looking for, Evans explains on the way in, is evidence of the the inner inquisitions shoppers go through: the dwell times, the U-turns, the hovering hands. Oh, and we'll also be looking at the signs. He says "nice signage" a lot.

At one point, Evans pauses before a wall-length display of luggage. "So many blue bags," he says. Later, in the dairy aisle, he does the same thing with an array of milk jugs. "How do you choose?" This is an important question, maybe the most important question in marketing. As we stand and ponder it, bathed in the unforgiving glow of the chiller, a woman walks by and, barely breaking her stride, picks up a litre of low-fat. "Which milk did that woman choose?" Evans says when she's out of earshot. "The one that didn't make her sick the last time she drank it."

Right, job done: make sure the milk is fresh. But things are never quite this simple in Evans' line of work. As he goes on to explain (attracting looks from shoppers as he does so), we are entering into one of the underlying principles of marketing psychology: risk-and-reward. Shoppers, it seems, are driven by the same impulses as their distant ancestors, people who tended to forage in fields rather than supermarkets. For our forebears, making wise consumer choices carried considerable weight. You needed to know, on a reflexive level, which mushrooms would feed you and which would kill you.

This leads us to "priming," a theory which goes something like this: If you are pecked by an aggressive seagull, your brain will create a synaptic short cut between these birds and a kind of alarm bell. So the next time you see one, you receive an immediate and forceful message: Run! (Phobias arise due to a glitch in the priming mechanism.) On the flip side of this is reward, the pre-logical promise of pleasure. This is the bit marketers are interested in, and it finds its most common expression in the reassuring colours and images used in packaging.

That's not a bad insight, considering all we've done is watch someone pick up a pint of milk. But we've barely scratched the surface. The following day, Evans takes me to a big-box furniture retailer, to see how people act when they're buying modular desks. Mostly, they act fed up. Then we spot a couple hovering around a metal storage shelf. The scenario has promise: storage shelves often end up in garages or basements, which makes them guy territory, yet it's the woman who gives the shelf a shake, testing its sturdiness, while the guy loses interest and walks off. A-ha!

OK, so it's not going to make the cover of Psychology Today - but, again, no detail too small. In terms of what this particular detail might mean, Evans doesn't know. Maybe it's time to start displaying hacksaws next to hoovers, maybe not. Given time, Evans is sure he'd come up with what he calls "the golden insight." As we discuss this, the woman stops what she's doing and swivels her eyes in our direction. She seems to be a little freaked out. We stop talking about the golden insight and walk away.

Heebie-jeebies has long been the bane of market researchers. Nathalie (she asks that her surname not be used) used to run the Dubai office of a global psychometrics company. By the time she quit the firm, she says, she'd grown sick of hearing the gripes that came her way: it's manipulative, unethical, creepy. "There's a saying in French: 'Je sais que tu me mens, mais continues s'il te plait' - 'I know you're lying to me, carry on,'" she says. "Yes, people are being manipulated. It's a game. We all know it and we're all playing it."

This may be true, but even the main players occasionally get tired of it. "I love what I do," Evans says toward the end of our conversation. "How many people get the chance to go through strangers' cupboards? That can be fascinating, exciting. There are times, though, when you have to go into someone's house and talk about diapers for three hours. You have to be in the right mood to do that."