Lessons in Consumer Behavior

As published in Home Furnishings Business

Using qualitative research methods to better understand your consumer.

As the upset at the recent New Hampshire primary demonstrates, what people say and what they do are not always one and the same. Perhaps that’s because people are more complex than polls would have us believe. The polls are intended to provide quantitative insight into the minds of voters, but like a single furniture shopper survey, the numbers can’t tell you everything.

Shop-alongs and video audits are two qualitative methods for analyzing the vagaries in consumer behavior. The observations made from this type of analysis can complement numeric data gathered in other consumer studies. Then, the idea is to put all this good information to use to improve customer communications and facilitate sales.

When you shop along with a consumer, you are privy to nuances in the thoughts and feelings that influence purchase decisions. A consumer may indicate her preference for contemporary designs in a focus group and then find herself at a retailer offering more traditional fare. You might witness her adjusting expressed desires to fit the style of the store she’s in—at least until she returns home to discover the carved legs on that side table don’t quite work with the clean-lined leather sofa she already owns.

Video audits expose other idiosyncratic shopper patterns that can be especially useful for planning store, merchandise and point-of-purchase layouts.

Your ultimate goal is to help shoppers connect the dots. Qualitative research methodology supports the retailer’s ability to do that.

Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned along the shopper’s way:

SHOPPERS FIND IT DIFFICULT TO assess the quality of furniture, and rely on their own methods and tests. In shop-a-longs, we’ve witnessed customers shaking furniture, tapping pieces to evaluate their stability, and pulling out drawers, but few use standard industry criteria to evaluate furniture quality.

Most don’t ask about types of wood, finishes or construction, or notice things like dovetail construction until they’re pointed out to them. Instead, shoppers make assumptions about quality based on the store’s overall presentation.

Post effective communication about your store’s quality positioning at all touch points. A beautifully appointed store may make a great statement in person, but if the home page on your Web site doesn’t reflect the same, the consumer may never make the drive over.

MANY CONSUMERS ASSUME WHAT THEY see in terms of size and finish is all that’s available to them. One woman we shopped with was searching for a painted white dining table. She was attracted to a black table shown on the retail floor, which was in the style she preferred, but remained unconvinced by the tag’s promise of a white color option. She couldn’t bridge the gap based on what she saw before her. It had to be demonstrated in real terms. The theory holds for furniture with multiple uses. An entertainment piece that can double for home office must be shown both ways in order to be sold both ways. A youth bedroom suite can easily be used for a second-bedroom, but it’s hard to convince a customer of that if it’s only dressed in Elmo bedding.

Show her, don’t tell her. Be specific when demonstrating a product’s flexibility and options.

IN GENERAL, WE’VE FOUND CONSUMERS pay the most attention to what’s in front of them. One couple we did a shop-along with spent time wondering if they could get a wall unit in a different configuration, and remained unaware of a large television monitor set to explain in detail the modular functionality of the piece. The customers were so focused on the unit itself, they never noticed the instructive video.

The most creative point-of-purchase materials and information are not meant to replace sales staff. Interaction with customers remains a critical component to retail success.

EXTENSIVE VIDEO AUDITING HAS ALSO picked up several interesting differences between men and women in how they shop for furniture. Female shoppers, for instance, tend not to focus on prices until they find something they like, while male shoppers look at price tags on everything. Women often bring other female companions along on their shopping trip—a mother, daughter or friend—and spend time sharing their thoughts on furniture. Men are much more likely to pick up literature, while women spend time touching, feeling and interacting with the pieces.

Address the needs of both genders in your displays and merchandising. For male-oriented furniture pieces such as home office or entertainment centers, be sure to have plenty of take-home literature on hand, and make sure prices are clearly marked. For more female-centered purchases such as living room and bedroom, use techniques to invite women to interact with the furniture, such as elevating key pieces and using carefully placed lighting.

THE MORE ANY CONSUMER INTERACTS with a product, the more he or she is likely to buy it. Those tactile stimuli go straight to the brain, connecting the consumer to the furniture—the first step toward ownership. In addition to the display ideas suggested above, it’s important to create an environment that the customer feels relaxed in. Ambient lighting suggests a home-like effect. The use of fabrics and other soft props encourages touching. Too much open space and exposure to other customers typically inhibits the interaction you want to facilitate. Think creatively about partitions and flexible walls.

Create safe and comfortable spaces for customers to test out products.

AND DON’T FORGET CONSUMERS AREN’T just shopping for furniture these days; they’re buying into a lifestyle. Showing room vignettes carefully staged with real-life accoutrements is paramount—bring in seasonal colors or fruits and flowers for accents, set a table with light-reflecting glassware and silver accessories, show a child’s room with toys neatly organized. Change these out each quarter, with fresh colors and symbols of the season, and the merchandise will look fresh and new to consumers. You may be in the business of selling furniture, but lighting and accessories are essential selling tools. Select carefully—they can make or break you. Use them to communicate the lifestyle that really speaks to your key consumer, the one your market and consumer research studies helped you identify. We’ve watched more than one consumer gravitate toward a particular bedroom suite because the linens caught her attention, or suddenly show interest in a buffet due to a display of festive barware.

Present your customer with a room that she can envision herself in and you’re halfway to the sale.

VIDEO AUDITS REVEAL THAT CUSTOMERS only see an average of 60 percent of most stores—sometimes because they skip sections they’re not interested in, but often because pathways and arteries are clogged with merchandise. Clear fresh pathways throughout your store, and signal strike zones with lighting, color and compelling graphics that draw them in and on to the next selection of products.

The more customers see of your store, the more opportunities they will have to buy.

CONSUMERS ARE EXPOSED TO A LOT OF home décor images these days, from the lifestyle catalogs that appear like clockwork in their mailboxes each season, to the 24-hour cable channels that turn ordinary living quarters into fabulous rooms, to the shelter magazines tempting them at the grocery store check-out. Though these images may have collectively raised consumer expectations, most are still at a loss as to how to pull it all together. And while they may not ask for it, time and again we observe that consumers need information and ideas and guidance while furniture shopping.

Furniture retail stores can and should be designed to address and satisfy the shopper’s needs. With both quantitative and qualitative consumer input, responsive retailers won’t need a lesson in how to grow sales.

“Your ultimate goal is to help shoppers connect the dots. Qualitative research methodology supports the retailer’s ability to do that.”

“Female shoppers, for instance, tend not to focus on prices until they find something they like, while male shoppers look at price tags on everything.”