Career insider: Shopper insight specialist

October 4, 2016, 2:15 pm

What is life as a shopper insight specialist all about? We asked Richard Savage, founder of The Shopper Experience Company to explain why it’s not just posh mystery shopping (though there is a bit of that!)

Being a professional shopper sounds as though it might fall in to the ‘dream job’ category – certainly for some.

But, as Richard Savage explains, there is much more to it than meets the eye. “If someone asks me what I do, the flippant answer is that I’m a professional shopper.

“What that actually means is that we help brand owners understand the retail experience from a shopper’s point of view, then relay the good and bad bits back to our clients. That reporting back comes armed with solutions to make the experience better.”

And this, says Richard, is the really important bit.

“We’re a retail intelligence business with a specialist research capability. We call ourselves shopper champions, and we’re ultimately about promoting better retail experiences.

“There are things that make us want to buy and things that stop us wanting to buy.

“Our job is to make retailers aware of all the best bits of what they do so that, for the shopper, making the choices is easier for them.

“What we do is look for the triggers and barriers to purchase. What is it that makes people want to buy something, and what is it that stops them? And those things will typically be a mix of physical, cultural and marketing barriers – all sorts of things.

“We help brands and retailers understand what it is people like and what they don’t like.”

Richard co-founded The Shopper Experience Company (as Retail in Action) in 2002, and now works with retailers and brands across the full spectrum of the market, from the discount grocery players through to luxury brands including Chanel. However he says many of the principles are the same, whichever sector you’re looking at.

“We offer two main services: measurement and evaluation of the shopper experience where we combine our take on mystery shopping with qualitative research with real shoppers to understand what life is like along the whole path to purchase – the customer journey.

“For example, when you’re having breakfast on a Sunday with your family, and the ketchup bottle is coming to the end of the useful life, we are about understanding the process from that moment: how does that item appear on the shopping list? What happens when the shopper is in store? What is it that stops someone trying a new brand of ketchup?”

Crucially, he reveals, anyone working in the areas of research and insight must be clear in their understanding of the difference between the ‘consumer’ and the ‘shopper’.

Often the shopper is buying on behalf of someone else – that someone else being the consumer. “The shopper is the person making the purchasing decision and parting with the cash at the till; the consumer might be the family at home – they are often different people.”

And he stresses that the triggers for making choices, and for actually buying, may be different for shoppers than they are for consumers – which makes the insight process a more complex one that you might imagine.

Is this the career for you?

So, what kind of person is suited to becoming a shopper insight specialist? We asked Richard what he looks for when he recruits to his team.

I look for some specific things in people that are essentially character traits. For me, these are much more important than qualifications. If I’m looking at a CV, I go instantly to look for what it is they enjoy doing and what their passions are.

Richard says his early personal experience in the advertising industry has inspired his approach to taking people on. “I started as an apprentice in the advertising industry, doing print and production. It was exciting and inspiring, and working in the ad industry in the hedonistic 80s was quite an adventure!” he says.

“But after a while I wanted to get into the account management and planning side, and I was told that I couldn’t because I didn’t have a degree, and I massively resented that.

“There were no particular grounds for it; it was just a principle, and so, while I think a university education is great I’m very much an advocate of getting experience.

“I look for enthusiastic people who are interested in things, and whom I can inspire and shape.”

Richard describes one of the highpoints of his time running his own business – with all the ups and downs that entails – as being following the career path of a 16 year old that came on work experience. “He’s now one of London’s top shopper and retail strategists. He was interested in everything and wanted to learn.

“That’s one of my proudest achievements. Nurturing people’s careers is really important to me, even though we’re not a big or highly structured business.”

Other qualities Richard believes are important for anyone interested in insights as a career include a willingness to demonstrate that you can apply yourself and have a point of view about everything. “I can’t stress enough the importance of not worrying that your point of view is ‘correct’; the chances are it won’t be. But never be afraid to say what you really think. That’s how you grow and learn,” he says.

“A lot of it is about relentless optimism. You have to try to be bright and optimistic all the time because that’s infectious and it makes things happen.

“You have to have believe in your product, you can’t make that up. And show real enthusiasm for your clients’ businesses. We all love going to talk about ourselves, our products, our businesses, but when you go and talk to people about their businesses, if you have an intelligent point of view, that goes a very long way.”

He cautions anyone in a consultancy or service industry – in fact in any field of business at all – never to forget that it is your customers, not you, who are in charge. “Even when you run your own business, while you may think you are the boss, actually, your masters are your clients. They are the ones paying your salary,” he says.

A changing landscape

Working in this field is to accept that nothing is going to stay still. Retail really is a constantly shifting landscape, as Richard explains: “It is now the case – more than ever – that people that are shopping in both Aldi and Waitrose, for example. We’ve been driven – even encouraged – to become incredibly promiscuous as customers.

“We’ve been turned, by retailers, into smart shoppers. Which is good for shoppers and consumers, but a challenge for the retailers.”

He adds: “The high street has never been more lively. Yes it’s consolidated and the role of shops had changed hugely but the fact is we like shopping, and even the shopping we don’t like, we like to moan about!”

While insight and research isn’t a new industry, Richard explains that the specific niche of shopping intelligence is quite recent. Which brings its own challenges, including the fact that there are not many competitors.

Good in one way, of course, but it also means there is an awareness job to be done. “People don’t know we’re around, so we’ve got to employ more sophisticated marketing techniques. Getting to clients is quite difficult,” he adds.

But he is confident that as retail, particularly in the food sector, shows no sign of becoming less complex, the role of shopper insight specialists will become ever more valuable – and valued. As long as, he adds, people start to appreciate the need to see life from the shopper’s point of view, rather than simply the consumer’s.

And as Richard concludes: “There is already lots of investment put into understanding the ‘consumer’ but much less in to understanding the ‘shopper’. And the truth is that if people don’t actually buy your products, you’re just not going to get anywhere.”


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