Traditional market research (think surveys, focus groups) often gets a bad rap from some because of its assumed limitations. Usually the argument against traditional research begins with (1) its unreliability because consumers are being asked about purchases in an artificial environment (home, office, wherever they answer their cell phone) and (2) the survey is asking them to recall specifics about purchases from as far backs as days, weeks or months ago. Therefore, the traditional market research haters are more apt to put more stock in point-of-purchase (POP) data. It has caused the emergence of “hip” methodologies such as eye-tracking research and heat map sensors.

“What the conscious mind thinks it wants may well be over-ridden by the agenda of the unconscious mind when the time comes, at which point habit, emotion and impulse may well determine behavioral outcome.” – Philip Graves, author of Consumerology.

Philip Graves, author of Consumerology, a book I read and enjoyed earlier this year touches on exactly that. He attempts to explain the “market research myth,” the truth about consumers and the psychology of shopping. I’ve mentioned in a prior case study that traditional market research still needs to be an integral part of your studies, but observational and point-of-purchase research is something that all clients should consider using to add more credibility and insight to purchase behavior. Ultimately, I think a combination of POP data (eye-tracking, heat maps) and traditional in-environment research (shop-alongs, intercepts) is the research package that will offer the most insights and intel to a client. But it’s often outside of the scope and budget for many small and mid-size businesses because in-environment research often requires on-site analyst-level staff dedicated to the project for multiple days or even weeks and expensive capital investments for equipment.

traditional market research

Professor X in the local supermarket debating upon the purchase of Pop Tarts or Toaster Strudels.

Here are a few key takeaways and stories from Consumerology that I thought were worth mentioning on our blog:

  • The Importance of Physical Environment and Surroundings in Market Research: 
    • “The place to understand consumers is when they are in their natural habitat, wherever their unconscious mind is being exposed to everything that might shape how they feel. And the good news is that we can learn a lot from watching what consumers do.”
    • “A relative of mine was recently stopped in the main shopping area near his home and asked to take party in a survey on beer. Seated in front of his computer screen, he was asked which brands of beer he bought. Despite the fact that in the supermarket aisle he knows exactly which product he would select, in the absence of the established visual patterns (including the stylized brand name) that would be available to his subconscious mind, he couldn’t consciously think of the name ‘Budweiser’ in isolation (at his computer.)”
    • “Humans, like animals, interact with and respond to their environment far more than we are aware of at a conscious level. If you want to change your own or someone else’s behavior, the first thing you can do is change their environment. Changing the environment is uniquely powerful in changing behavior. There is no greater single influence.”
  • How Choice Impacts Purchases: “Social psychologists Iyengar and Lepper carried out an experiment that illustrated how, in practice, more choice isn’t necessarily beneficial. They evaluated reactions to two tasting tables at a supermarket. On one they laid out 24 different jams and on the other just six. While more people elected to stop for the wider selection of jams (60 percent versus 40 percent), a dramatically higher proportion purchased from the selection of six jams, whereas only 3 percent did so from the larger choice. Put another way, less than 2 percent of the people bought from a display of 24 jams, but 12 percent did from a choice of six.”
  • Website Testing: “A lack of ease or fluency can cause a loss in sales for a business. Where customers can’t find what they want easily, and even when the first page of a site is slow to load, they will go elsewhere. One study suggested that, unless there is something on the screen telling people that information is being loaded, two seconds is as long as people are willing to tolerate before they will move off. I strongly suspect that the specter of the unconscious mind’s capacity to misattributed feelings is at the heart of this phenomenon: mild frustration at waiting for a page to appear can easily be felt as a dislike for what is offered.”

Those are just a few of the notes and findings that I walked away with after reading the book. Although Graves attempts to discount traditional market research, I would argue that rather than simply stopping your business from conducting surveys and focus groups, you should at least consider new ways and new methodologies of doing market research to receive different insights. Market research needs to continually evolve to lend new and innovative data to our clients.

If you are interested in ethnographic research, shop-alongs or intercept interviews, contact our Business Development Director, Sandy Baker, at or by calling her at (315) 635-9802. Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) is a market research firm located outside of Syracuse, NY.