The Association for Qualitative Research
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Qual and a changing high street

The UK high street is undergoing an unprecedented transformation. Nathan Hester looks at developments and explores what this means for qualitative research.

Qualitative research has always played a valuable role in understanding shopper behaviour but as the retail landscape develops the challenge for qual is how to adapt to remain relevant. It means questioning the techniques we use, and more importantly, thinking about the mindset with which we approach the questions retailers are asking.

Multi-channel focus

This has been our area of specialism for nearly two decades, during which time we have never witnessed such a period of profound and rapid change as retail is experiencing now. Tough trading conditions combined with the realisation of new sales opportunities via other channels have left retailers questioning the high street's role. High profile names as diverse as M&S, French Connection, George and Mamas & Papas have curbed store opening plans in favour of a focus on multi-channel.

This new focus gives them a chance to engage with consumers in novel and lucrative ways. Click & Collect, for example, has been around for some time but retailers are now seeing the potential to encourage incremental spend when shoppers collect. Interactive TV, meanwhile, represents a wholly new channel which no retailer has grasped up to this point.

And as the old stalwarts review their high street presence, new players look set to enter the market. Online retailers, for instance, are exploring ways to create a physical presence: Amazon is introducing collection lockers, eBay is dabbling in pop-up stores. What's more, they are exploring digital technologies to overcome the traditional barriers to shopping online: expanding ranges to include fashion, encouraging "add-on" purchases, using augmented reality and inspiring apps to mimic instore experience.

As the "brave new world" approaches the high street will need to adapt, with commentators espousing several theories of how it will look. Mary Portas's report, The Future of the High Street, published in 2011 is well worth a read. A regularly mentioned shift is from range to experience, because high street stores know their limitations when it comes to competing with online.

Many stores have been developed with this in mind, including JJB's new concept store which encourages shoppers to trial product. And via the experiential element, high street stores could become an expression of brand image, defining the way the retailer is viewed. Partnerships are also emerging; witness Waterstone's deal with Amazon to make Kindle the official eReader.

Or there could be a more "functional" alternative. High streets could be populated by collection and order points, with retailers selling convenience products which are needed right away.

Finally, the emotional and practical desire among both shoppers and retailers to save the high street could transform it. Shoppers might push for it to be a hub for community and entertainment, not just a transactional space. High streets could become more vibrant and 24 hour as retail space is freed for housing. Creating this environment would involve retailers working together to develop a cohesive feel rather than a random selection of products.

But "new high street" aside, what does this all mean for qual research? Clearly, both qual and quant need to find ways to deliver insights which are relevant to the new retail landscape. At this stage, when understanding of the emotions that lie behind the multi-channel experience is still limited, it seems that qual has a key role to play. And, in our experience, many retailers are unclear about how to use the various multi-channel strands and keen to learn.

Some methodologies lend themselves well to exploring the different channels. The age old combination of groups, accompanied shops and intercepts remain a great way to shine a light on the in-store experience. We would always start with a period of observation, though, to understand what people say in the context of what we've seen them do.

Over the years adapting accompanied shops to become accompanied surfs has been a way to explore retailer websites. New technology, however, also allows us to track what site elements shoppers have interacted with, and to probe the reasons for their behaviour. Combining the accompanied surf with a follow-up visit to store with the respondent gives an understanding of the click and collect experience.

But far more important than the methods of collecting information about the new retail world is the way researchers think about it and the questions that are asked. We need to understand some key issues before even asking about the specifics of the experience, ensuring findings are seen through the appropriate lens. Otherwise, insights and recommendations could be wildly off kilter.

Firstly, what do retailers want the high street to deliver and what are the real business objectives behind new developments? They may require help forming strategy and objectives in the face of bewildering change and losses. Co-creation workshops, meanwhile, can help them harness their strengths and adapt.

Shoppers' wavelength

How do consumers use and view the high street and how do other channels fit in? By beginning interviews in the home and exploring these background insights we can be on the shoppers" wavelength before we reach the store. And, as the digital world takes a greater role in more aspects of our lives, shopping as a discrete activity will be less common.

So exploring consumers "digital lives" via online communities ensures we understand interactions with a retailer in a realistic context. Online research platforms allow retailers to get close to customers, and harder to reach groups, while enabling immediate direct interaction using customers" own language.

Economic troubles and emerging technology are making for a challenging, yet exciting time for the high street and this is mirrored in qual research. It's essential that we understand the new retail landscape to be able to communicate with consumers and provide great insight to retailers.

 

Nathan Hester
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012