It’s not a supermarket, it’s a behavioural science lab

The Economist has a fascinating article on how new technology is turning supermarkets into behavioural science labs and how you are an unwitting participant in marketing experiments.

The piece discusses the psychology of big store marketing, touching on three areas: store layout and environment design, ‘neuromarketing‘ and customer tracking.

It’s interesting that much of the fuss in the media has focused on ‘neuromarketing’ – the use of cognitive neuroscience to understand consumer behaviour – when it is clear from this article that it is really quite impotent in the face of the two other powerful techniques.

Neuromarketing is largely the study of financial decision making and typically relies on correlating brain activity with simulated consumer purchasing.

The idea is that it will explain how we make purchase decisions and will give us access to some of the unconscious process that are at work. Once we understand these, it could lead marketers to new techniques that we would never have discovered by studying behaviour or opinions alone.

In other words, it’s a theory generating process, because the bottom line of marketing is to increase sales – an objectively measured, concrete outcome.

If we want to see if a marketing technique has worked, we would want to study what people actually do with their money, so the proof of any insight from neuromarketing is actually in follow-up behavioural experiments or sales figures.

You can see from the article why the media fuss and commercial hype of neuromarketing is often unjustified because its abstract benefit is no match for the behavioural data and this is being gathered in almost frightening detail every time you shop.

Three technologies are mentioned: RFID tags – tiny radiotransmitters that can be used to track individual items in the shop; using mobile phone signals to track shoppers position and path through the store; and face recognition software to track people via the security cameras and record their emotional expressions.

Combine this with the detailed purchase data from the tills, and you have a marketing psychologists dream: the fine detail of how people actually behave in the store, how they interact with individual products, and what they actually purchase.

In other words, it’s possible to see how any changes affect behaviour during decision-making and at the purchase point. The sheer number of shoppers means that the data set is huge – you could not ask for better behaviour science data – and that even quite subtle changes can be tried and tested.

The Economist article does a great job of explaining some of the techniques that are being used to study shoppers, but also some of the techniques that are currently being used to entice / manipulate shoppers (take your pick!) during their visit to the supermarket.

Link to Economist article on the behavioural science of supermarkets.

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