Making shopping a science

This month, along with the announcement of our retail alliance with AOL, Mediabrands unveiled of a new shopper market agency called Shopper Sciences. Retail veteran and Mediabrands EVP, John Ross will head the agency which will focus on the key influence factors in shoppers’ journey from undecided to decided.

Utilizing a range of tools from across Mediabrands, and relying heavily on the Lab, the new shopper marketing agency will have the ability to pinpoint the media sources that move a shopper from indecision to decision, evaluate the barriers to purchase at different points within the purchase cycle.   The agency will use influence research to reveal points where the shopping process fails to meet consumers’ needs.  By also partnering with Geomentum it will provide clients with location-based insights and customer traffic to retail locations.

The Lab sat down with John Ross to discuss the future of the Shopper Sciences Agency.

What is Shopper Sciences and how does it differ from the recent craze of agencies all chasing “Shopper Marketing” as the next big thing?

What fascinates me about the all the buzz around shopper marketing in the last few years is actually how little “shopper” there is in most shopper marketing programs. The CPG shopper programs often have the customer (e.g., the grocer, bottler, distributor, etc.) as the real target for their shopper initiatives. And the retailers themselves struggle even more – their shopper initiatives are often more about extracting more slotting fees and co-op than really improving the shopping experience in their stores. Very little “shopper marketing” is focused on helping harried shoppers make smarter decisions, helping them improve their selection process or simplifying the buying process.

That’s where Shopper Sciences comes in. Every project we do starts with our unique approach to shopper insights – we literally heat map the shopping process, identifying what consumers need, how well different information sources support their decision making process and what can drive real preference – and ultimately conversion for the retailers and brands.

Why now?

We have always known that word of mouth is at the top of the list for influence in how shoppers make choices. In the past, much of that word of mouth (peer to peer) influence was impossible to document, and very expensive to sample. But today, with the rapid expansion of social media, we can eavesdrop on the global conversation around the shopping journey.

It amazes me how much of the social web is dedicated to conversations about shopping. With parents in particular, our research shows that as much as 70 percent of mom-to-mom online conversation centers around shopping advice, product reviews and purchase recommendations. And the humble product review rating button on many retailers’ websites often tests as one of the most influential drivers of shopper choice, stronger than their traditional (and very expensive) promotional campaigns.

Amazon, eBay and other online retailers have set the bar higher for shopping in general. Consumers increasingly expect more information, with links to product reviews, health and nutritional information, previous purchaser recommendations and more. They want access to that information both online, in-store, and although mobile shopping numbers are still small, we see a massive influence curve on the role that mobile marketing will increasingly play in the shopping process.

The combination of these trends demands a smarter agency model – one that can connect to your existing agency roster to reveal the shopper mindset and very specific shopper needs to help inform all the touch-points.

What is your relationship with the IPG Media lab?

Although the IPG Shopper Sciences agency is new, it built out of the great work that IPG’s Media Lab has been doing in the field of shopper research. The Lab has been constantly testing and validating consumer trends, looking for ways to build new methods of connecting marketers with consumers. Shopper Sciences’ tool set was incubated in the Lab; now it is ready to scale.

And what is your connection with Momentum?

Chris Weil, CEO of Momentum, has been talking about the blend between physical shopping and the digital space for years. He calls it the “Phygital Future.” I have been so impressed by the work they are doing to integrate online and traditional marketing with experiential marketing worldwide. Shopper Sciences helps bring this really robust tool set to Chris’ team; he brings great creative, smart in-store strategists and a true field execution experience to our new agency.

It is exactly the kind of emerging agency model that this new media marketplace demands. It’s a great example of how an agency holding company can build synergy across units, adjusting talent and combining teams across agencies to adjust to rapidly changing media landscapes.

What is an example of the kind of integration your’re are talking about?

Well, we are doing a lot of work in the fashion clothing space today. When you look at the path to purchase for young consumers – young teens to early twenties – for clothing and fashion accessories you see a growing trend toward social shopping.

Retailers know this – they see  young women moving into the stores as a group, often all trying on the same items, and advising each other on what looks great and what doesn’t. The fact is that that same social phenomenon you can observe in-store is also happening in the pre-shopping phase. Shoppers in this category crave peer validation that they are making good choices, and emerging technology helps facilitate these shopping conversations online and in social media.

I think it is amazing that most retailers still have formal policies that prohibit taking photographs in their stores! As much as 40 percent of these young, savvy shoppers report taking a photograph of an item to ask their friends for advice. And their friends’ opinion ranks as the number one source of influence in their purchasing decision matrix. Instead of prohibiting in-store photography, retailers should be facilitating it – promoting it!

What have you learned as a retailer?

I have spent my entire career in retail: in operations, merchandising and marketing. What makes building a new kind of advertising agency so fun is that it lets me use new tools to solve problems that I as a retailer just couldn’t solve on my own.

Frankly, great shopper marketing is often amazingly simple. The shopper is out there, screaming at us to make purchasing faster, easier, smarter. Shopper Science gives brands a practical tool set to listen intently to those voices at retail speed and scale. And in the end, figuring out how to give shoppers what they want  always generates improvements in the metrics we want.  And that will always drive sales.