Thought piece: Why do retailers need to listen to customers “in the moment” of purchase?

Having just had a guest speaker on Mindfulness we have all been told that ‘living in the moment’ is the best way to focus on the issue in hand, concentrating on what we are doing now.

This led me on to thinking about some of our customer experience and retail work at Marketing Sciences and the values of doing ‘in the moment’ research (face to face in a store with the customer or at their laptop while they complete an online shop) as opposed to a piece of research (usually online) a few days later.

The importance of speaking to a

customer ‘in the moment’

is, that you are likely to get closer to their real opinion of what happened during that experience, on that day and at that time. The further removed our questioning is from the experience, the more prone it is to ‘clutter’ and more subjective matter around perceptions , values and other memories.

Research we have done has shown that there can be a time delay on customers noticing the impact of a change to an in-store experience when they are interviewed via an online survey rather than in store, on the day. The length of the time delay depends on a number of things.

This includes the type of retailer (and how often you visit). Changes will be seen quicker for stores you visit often (such as supermarkets) and much slower, sometimes negligible, for stores visited less frequently (clothing or DIY retailers for example).

The type of question also has an impact. If it is seen to be a more objective question such as whether the customer noticed something (Yes/No), then results can be picked up much more immediately. More subjective questions are slower to see a change as, by their nature, are already linked with individual perceptions of what it means to be clean or good value for money.




We know that customers, when surveyed online, need to see an improvement more than twice before they’ll change their perception of your brand.

However, when they are interviewed in the store on the day, are more likely to admit “actually that was quite good today, it’s not usually”. Once a customer has left the store, any notion of that experience relies on memory of some sort.  As time moves on, memory of the visit becomes more of a perception. Whilst it is useful to understand a customer’s perception of your store (as that has a big role in whether they choose to visit you next time they have the need), we need to be careful what questions we are trying to answer.

If we are asking customers to notice specific improvements to a store and we are not interviewing at the time, we may need to be more objective in our questioning rather than relying on changes ‘emerging’ from the more value-laden concepts we sometimes ask customers to comment on. Of course, if we are tracking, whether alone or against relevant competition, all retailers will have the same level of ‘time lag’ and we can allow for this in our interpretation.

This is not to undermine online research at all, in fact at Marketing Sciences we conduct a lot of online research for retailers in different sectors and our studies do pick up these changes in context.



Research Methodologies

It is important to understand the role for each method and what would be most suitable, as well as affordable

A quick note on cost, online is often seen to be much cheaper than face to face leaving the “in the moment” research seeming to be not affordable.

However, whilst for some studies, this is certainly the case, for a very tailored or tactical research, it can be easier to find our sample of interest (customers who are using the right stores on the right days) by going to the stores themselves. Very few online panels, or even customer databases, are large enough to speak to a sample of customers who have had a very recent and specific touch-point with the store in question. Even a customer’s own perception of whether they have been to a store in the past 2 months, is affected by their perception of time.

Some clients worry that interviewers in the store might affect the customer experience if managers and staff ‘gear up’ when an interviewer is in store. Such ‘corrective action’ suggests that they know they are not offering the best service possible and, depending on the questions we are asking, it is also possible to ask customers if this is the experience they usually have at this store. A very interesting finding when it is not.

Some retailers provide the invitation ‘in the moment’ – via the means of an online survey link for vouchers or rewards at a later date. But the reality of this is that you may not complete the survey for, at best, a few hours, probably a few days or, if you are anything like me with all the good intentions in the world, find the receipt in the bottom of my bag weeks later as I got so engrossed in (delete as applicable) putting the shopping away, actually painting the room I had bought the brush for or wearing the outfit on a big night out.

Would it be different if I’d had a terrible experience? Probably. Or a very good one? Maybe. I wouldn’t storm through the door with the receipt in my hand so I didn’t forget to give feedback…or even try and access it on my mobile in the car park trying to alleviate the stress before I hit the road!

The other benefit of in the moment research is that we can stop a selection of customers who, as long as the questionnaire is kept short, would answer about their trip when perceived as less effort than processing an online survey.



Customer Experience

if we rely only on those customers who choose to give us their opinions, we may be getting a biased view.

Negative feedback is a great way to improve – but it needs to be put in context or else, in an era of social media where a very short search will show a million negative comments – companies would spend their entire time and budget trying to pacify every customer there was.  By stopping a random selection of customers in the moment (not just relying on those who have selected to have a rant), advances in technology mean that we can flag up any particularly negative scores about their real (and current) experience and accompanying  this with verbatims to add the real flavour.

I remember many years ago, with the advent of online research, people talked of the death of face to face interviewing. However, whilst many studies have moved on line, there are still a great many that have not. It was only 2 years ago that Marketing Sciences made a huge investment in upskilling our entire face to face fieldwork team with tablets, something which has already paid off in a relatively short amount of time. We are exceptionally proud of the fact that we did over 1 million interviews for our clients face-to-face, in the moment at store exits last year.  I put this ‘exaggerated death’ down to the fact that online research is great for some things – but cannot overcome the reliance on memory that ‘in the moment’ (and importantly ‘in situ’ – still in the location, focussed on the task in hand and with all the sensory cues that surround the customer at that time)  research provides.

And, to get a little academic, remember the words of Proust:

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” 

Listening to customers in the moment is just one in our series of Four Insight Challenges facing Retailers.

Please feel free to get in touch with either myself or one of our other retail experts at Marketing Sciences!

Retail Customer Experience

Danni Findlay is a customer experience expert and director at Marketing Sciences Unlimited. Danni works with retailers such as Tesco to help them to listen to the voice of the customer

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Danni Findlay
01962 842211
Article date - 02/04/2015
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