June 20, 2014

GlaxoSmithKline's Shopper Science Lab

A local test shopper at GSK's Shopper Science Lab in London (photo: Sarel Jansen)
Clear view: Mobile eye tracking technology reveals what a customer really sees
Once you pass the high-security doors, having solemnly promised not to take photos, it looks like something straight out of Star Trek. But despite the hush-hush, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is clearly immensely proud of its new Shopper Science Lab. The high-tech facility stands only 300 yards away from the global healthcare group’s headquarters in Brentford/West London.

The Brits state that they have invested "a significant amount" in the new research complex and that Metro C&C and European buying alliance EMD already number among its 35 retail customer users. Given that GSK (think Sensodyne toothpaste or Dr. Best toothbrushes) spends £3.4bn (€4.2bn) annually on R&D in vaccines, medicines and consumer healthcare products, "significant" will not mean peanuts.

Like Diageo’s Customer Collaboration Centre, only a few miles down the road, this is a world-class shopper insight facility waiting to be discovered. In fact, the Shopper Science Lab is the largest of its kind in Europe and makes science look like an art.

Free service for retailers

The 1,000m² building is filled with technology aimed at providing an in-depth understanding of how and why shoppers make purchasing decisions and what influences their choices.

The Shopper Science Lab houses a focus group room, where consumer respondents are shown new products, online offers or TV ads; a viewing room, where their filmed responses can be analysed by trade visitors; "theatre spaces" containing exact physical replicas of relevant retail environments (a pharmacy/chemist’s, a drug store, a superstore health & beauty department); a "Virtual Insight & Engagement Wall"; and a "collaboration room" for meetings with retail clients.

The Brentford location is clearly advantageous for conducting such shopper research. Its very proximity to head office means that visiting retailers have easy access to GSK senior leadership and can hold "top-to-top" discussions. Within only a three-mile radius, there are over 1m shoppers across all socio-demographic profiles. In addition, every major grocery and pharmacy retailer is represented in the area, which makes the facility doubly useful for foreign visitors wishing to understand the UK market.

According to Shopper Science Lab director Crispin Haywood, GSK does not charge retailers for using the site. Although they are essentially European, with around 60 per cent of visitors coming directly from the UK, the self-styled fmch (fast-moving consumer healthcare) company has already welcomed one retailer from Australia.

Surprisingly, there are only five persons in the core team. Haywood is assisted by Global Programme Director Russell Barrow, a technical manager, a category management expert, and the hard-working lady who coordinates the bookings. However, staff are flanked by a battery of corporate specialists within GSK’s global network. The Shopper Science Lab also uses a roster of eight external focus group recruitment and research agencies to ensure neutrality.

Retail theatre spaces

The pharmacy and retail store areas recreate real-life environments where shopper responses can be evaluated to various pharmacy displays, signage and store layouts. Customers are filmed and recorded as they shop so that researchers can also see what they pick up, handle or put back on the shelf.

All shoppers wear mobile eye tracking glasses, developed by Ergoneers, that track the person's pupils and overlay a cross hair on the scene camera showing where the correspondent is looking. This technology provides researchers with in-depth analysis of what customers actually look at. Each optical fixation of more than one hundredth of a second is recorded electronically and creates a dot on the screen – the longer the fixation, the larger the dot. Logically, this also shows what customers have passed over.

The eye tracking can be watched live from the viewing room enabling observers to see exactly what the respondent is looking at as they conduct the research. Shopperception software is also used to create a heat map of what test persons looked at most intensively on the shelves or how they reacted to POS fixtures.

The results often surprise. For instance, packaging may look good to design teams, but if no customers actually read the advertising claim, then this obviously defeats the purpose. Generally, it has been found that colour, shape, contrast and lighting will influence our attention. Therefore any key claim must be big, contrasted, and stand out from the background.

The advantages or disadvantages of different packaging types can easily be tested in the Shopper Science Lab. Russell Barrow says that its results are also more objective: “If a supplier or retailer changes the packaging here, then they will be able to evaluate the difference far more easily than in a normal store environment where there are so many other extraneous factors that can’t be controlled or excluded.”

Hard-wired for faces

In general, our focal attention tends to be triggered unconsciously. For example, our brains have been hard-wired since earliest childhood to look at faces. This primeval tendency is so ingrained in our mind that our gaze even orientates towards symbols that evoke facial qualities. Designers can therefore use this insight to help customers navigate around a product package or shelf fixture.

Regardless of our height, our gaze tends to range within a 15 per cent cone from the eyes. This means that people often won’t look at the bottom or top two corners of a shelf fixture.

Similarly customers don’t process every visual detail when they stroll through a store. Shoppers subconsciously deselect lots of information for the task in hand. They will also use their peripheral vision to navigate in the store, which means that the first three feet from both ends of an aisle are often dead spaces. Therefore, a fixture in the centre works well from both directions as the peripheral vision of the customer has "calmed down" by the time it is reached.

This also has consequences for layouts and segmentation. For example, a horizontal block of products will not interrupt a customer’s gaze because it contributes to his or her sense of flow as they walk along. By contrast, a vertical block will break a sight line across the fixture or store.

Make your customers sweat

The focus group room also employs high-tech to gain added customer insight. Here GSK researchers use bespoke skin and facial biometric tools to enable the understanding of a shopper’s unconscious and emotional reactions to targeted advertising.

Wrist bracelets record the galvanic skin response of test persons by measuring the conductivity of their sweat. Biosensors determine the degree of emotional interaction with the products shown by interviewers or presented online and on TV screens. Apparently, we all perspire more when we are excited by something, regardless of whether the emotion concerned is positive or negative.

Cameras also record customer facial expressions. These are computer-analysed using algorithms developed by Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. The combination of bracelet and camera gauges both a customer’s instantaneous reaction and their general mood. If, for instance, a respondent is feeling generally happy, this will show up as a green smiley on viewing room monitors and tablet screens.

This is important because conventional focus groups can sometimes be unreliable. It is not unknown for respondents to say one thing and mean another, whether through a sense of courtesy or due to peer pressure. The monitoring technology also allows moderators to ascertain if test persons are really engaged or only pretending to be so.

It can equally be used to analyse online customer behaviour. GSK has re-created a home office-type environment allowing observers to study how consumers react to different e-commerce offers.

Make your own film

All the areas within the facility can be observed in a dedicated control room via fixed cameras enabling the remote viewing of shoppers. Live recordings can be paused, rewound and annotated. Visiting researchers may work the cameras themselves, take different shots, and edit a video on the spot.

In the past, researchers often had to wait for two to four days for a DVD video copy. The whole process is now so fast that visitors can take a fully edited video back with them when they leave.

Virtual Insight & Engagement Wall

At 5.32m wide and 2.55m high, the Virtual Insight & Engagement Wall is the world’s largest seamless touch-screen and provides full 3D visualisation of retail environments. These include grocery & pharmacy High Street retailers in the UK as well as global retailers.

The "VIEW" allows users to navigate on a 1 to 1 scale as they would in a real store environment. The 3D effect is simulated by hundreds of photos. The authenticity is such that you can even hear birdsong as you "walk" towards the store and in through the front doors.

Using the touch-screen or a keyboard control, one can make any desired change to the 3D model from switching the advertising in the front window to changing the store layout. Physical data can be incorporated into the shop environment by brand, margin, loyalty data, customer information etc.

But perhaps the most striking use of the technology is the ease with which store shelf fixtures can be changed. To do this physically in a test store would take hours, days, or even weeks, but here at the VIEW all can be done digitally in a matter of seconds.

Up to 14 people are able to work on the touch-screen at the same time. Users can drag & drop whole rows of merchandise, and individual products can be duplicated or zoomed. It is even possible to take items off the shelf, enlarge them and turn them around, replicating the way customers examine packaging before making a purchasing decision.

The collaboration room

The potential for co-operation between brand and design teams or for collaborative range reviews is clear. In fact, GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare has already held over 110 research and collaboration sessions with retailers at the Shopper Science Lab to date. GSK states that these have led to a significant increase in the number of strategic in-store projects it is undertaking with trade partners.

The facility enables GSK to integrate shopper insights earlier in the product development process than would normally be possible. This, in turn, shortens lead times and improves the return on investment for GSK and its retail partners. The speed at which GSK can gather insights and virtually analyse and adapt store layouts means that the company and its retail customers can receive instant feedback on new initiatives.

More fun than spreadsheets

Clearly, the Shopper Science Lab provides a stimulating environment for joint-value creation and insight into how the customer interacts with the oral care and health & beauty segments. Such a creative space would seem infinitely more enjoyable and clearer to the mind than the conventional method of ploughing through reams of excel sheet data.

The Shopper Science Lab also provides an invaluable tool for internal design reviews, pack design, product launches, signage at the POS, in-store customer navigation, the identification of white-space opportunities, and website assessment. Above all, new ideas can be quickly tried out digitally and in the retail theatres before they are quantitatively tested, representing a significant timesaving over standard techniques.

Crispin Haywood sums up the benefits in one sentence: "If something doesn't work, it doesn't work, but if you get it right, customers will reward you with their loyalty and spend."

Related article in German: By Mike Dawson in Lebensmittel Zeitung, Nr. 25, 20.06.2014

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