The idea that retailers' senior management are in touch with the shop floor has long been peddled to the media. After all, the image of a chief executive manning the till with a cheesy grin, or talking to sales assistants, makes for a good photo opportunity. There is, however, more to it than a bit of PR puffery.
'It's true that in many big, successful retailers, senior management are in and out of the store all the time,' says James Murphy, founding partner of Adam & Eve, which works with John Lewis. 'And it's not just senior management. At busy times, such as Christmas, we all help in-store, on tills for example. We get a huge amount out of working at the sharp end.'
He adds: 'It's very easy as an agency to think only in terms of driving footfall, but that's just one part of it. The next part is converting footfall into sales, and by working on the shop floor you can see how this is done - for instance, through interaction with customers and brilliant merchandising.'
Hunger for precious information about shopper behaviour is growing ever more insatiable, thanks in part to increasingly sophisticated technology. Field marketers, long-time masters of manipulating the shop floor, suddenly find themselves at the centre of this data revolution as they hold the key to delivering powerful, real-time knowledge to brands at the touch of a button.
1 - How visual merchandising affects sales
Visual merchandising was once just about store signage and window displays, but the internet has changed all that. With online shopping now prevalent, virtual experiences are starting to affect shoppers' expectations of traditional, physical stores.
'In this technological and fast-paced culture, shoppers are fact-hungry and often conduct their own research on the internet before venturing out,' says Russell Langridge, director of retail agency HRG, which works with Waterstone's and Cow & Gate.
'So it's critical that brands fully understand their target audience and present only the pertinent information in a clear and consistent way. Wonderfully engineered display units, signage or impressive window displays will be effective only if the key message is targeted, relevant and visible.'
One trend muddying the waters and confusing shoppers is the multitude of promotions screaming for on-shelf attention. Desperate to entice cash-strapped shoppers to buy at a time of economic uncertainty, brands as diverse as National Tyres and Unilever have saturated shop floors with messages about deals and so on.
According to SymphonyIRI Group, more than half of all FMCG products are currently sold on promotion, a figure that has steadily risen over the past three years. The company's research also shows that long-term overuse of promotions can damage brand loyalty because it leaves shoppers with an expectation that the product will always be discounted.
'There is no doubt that what shoppers see on the shelf - product packaging, shelf displays and promotions - has an impact on their purchase [decisions], but brands need to be aware that this can be negative as well as positive,' says John Kirk, field services director at SymphonyIRI. 'Get this balance right and shelf merchandising can encour-age a shopper to try a product or buy more. Get it wrong and it can actually turn people away.'
Online retail is also influencing offline merchandising by whetting shoppers' appetite for interactivity. According to Sam Noble, global executive planning director at Iris, this gives rise to another balancing act.
'Marketers have to capture people's attention and imagination, but also allow the shopper to interact with the brands on their own terms, utterly seamlessly and in ways that feel like a natural enhancement of their overall journey; that's to say, in ways that link up with their online and direct contact experiences,' he says.
Noble cites the work of client Adidas in the US, where it has created a virtual footwear wall in stores under the banner adiVERSE. This wall, which Iris describes as a 'futuristic mash-up of ecommerce and the mall', allows shoppers to peruse more than 8000 digitally represented shoes, viewing them from all angles and accessing extra content such as video. Believing that the UK is 'nearly' as enthusiastic as the US about ecommerce, Adidas plans to roll out the wall over here next year.
2 - Mobile commerce: taking the principles of field marketing mobile
Virtual shopping, then, is affecting the physical retail experience. Likewise, traditional field-marketing principles are influencing the way brands extend their in-store strategies to other channels, such as mobile. For instance, Wilkinson Sword enhanced the effectiveness of point-of-sale material for its Hydro razors by using quick-response (QR) technology. The material, instead of bamboozling consumers with messages likely to get lost in the clutter of other brands' POS activity, simply invited them to access a QR code to receive more information via their handsets.
'This enabled us to communicate the complex technology of the new razor in a way that we simply couldn't do through traditional in-store material,' says Karen Williams, senior product manager at Wilkinson Sword. 'Consumers who wanted more detailed information were able to access content such as product-demo videos, while other shoppers weren't overloaded with lots of messages. This is the first time we've used this technology and we were really pleased with the level of interaction.
Wilkinson Sword worked with MEC on this project. Mark Brennan, emerging platforms director at the agency, claims that QR codes have 'opened the door for a lot of other image-recognition-based technologies' to be used in the field. He predicts that interactive mobile ads, augmented reality and mobile commerce will continue to grow in importance in-store.
However, Danielle Pinnington, managing director of research agency Shoppercentric, warns against the blind application of field-marketing principles when using these technologies. The company's research shows that shoppers are most interested in mobile commerce when it allows them to access an offer or opportunity they would not otherwise get in-store, such as an exclusive product trial.
'Traditional rules won't apply - the shoppers are in charge, so don't expect to play by the restricted rules of standard marketing,' says Pinnington. 'They want flexibility from brands and retailers. They want to feel they are getting something better, as if they are part of an exclusive club. This is not about saying "we're going to have a BOGOF sticker on shelf, so let's have the same on smartphones". If it's as basic as that, then what is the benefit of getting the smartphone out of your bag?'
3 - How technology can monitor the supply chain
A recently published report from SymphonyIRI Group reveals that the average out-of-stock rate for FMCG products in Europe is 8%, costing brands at least e4bn (£3.5bn) a year in lost sales. What's more, the level of substitution between brands - when a consumer buys a rival product after finding their desired one out of stock - can be as high as 75%.
With the abundance of new technology available, however, marketers should not have to endure the nightmare of spending millions on promoting a product, only for it not to be available in stores. Momentum Worldwide, for example, monitors client brands at retail outlets with the help of technology provider StayinFront. The agency's field agents, armed with PDAs, constantly feed relevant information to head office in real time.
'Say, for instance, we've been promoting a new product to retailers and the advertising has gone live but there is no stock in-store for the launch week - we can react very quickly to that; within an hour we can target where there are issues,' says Momentum account director Laura Leonard. 'We can email reports directly to the client, rather than asking them to log out of their email to access a separate report. The problem can be fixed much quicker.'
Another advantage is that the PDAs enable a dialogue between field agents and head office - as well as receiving information from the shop floor, Momentum can instantly react to it and issue commands to the agents in order to quickly resolve problems.
Innovative technology can address more than just stock levels. According to Wayne Gallaway, managing director EMEA at StayinFront, the field-marketing arena is changing dramatically and, whereas once clients wanted only simplistic, piecemeal data capture, now they are demanding more-detailed information. Major global brands, he says, are starting to ask for systems that track variables such as POS compliance, the GPS location of field agents, their productivity and competitor activity; what's more, they want this information to be integrated for easier analysis.
Innovations such as tablet computers also enable agents to carry out groundbreaking field activity, for example, showing a retailer a new ad or product-demonstration video minutes after they have been created. Not only that, some agents are then videoing the response of said retailer to show clients their reaction.
'In the past, reporting could take weeks and hasn't been seen as a particularly dynamic area, but now, with the changes in mobile technology and smartphones coming to market, brands are starting to change their mindset - they want to turn insight into real-time action,' says Gallaway.
4 - Looking ahead: can your customers become your field-marketing agents?
Mobile technology is also prompting other, more surprising, innovations. The Field Agent app, for example, launched on Apple's iPhone platform in the UK last November, asks members of the public to become field marketers in return for a small fee.
Consumers simply sign up, log their location and start carrying out tasks such as filling out a survey, taking a picture, counting products in-store, making sure that POS material is erected and fact-checking information supplied on a website. They are paid between £2 and £6 per task - brands and agencies can find pricing details at www.fieldagent.co.uk/pricing, which also offers volume discounts.
Field Agent, which has signed up more than 7600 consumers in the UK, has been commissioned by 14 field-marketing and mystery-shopper agencies. One of the biggest criticisms being levelled at the service is that using amateur field marketers is risky for brands. Field Agent's director of European communications, Sam Lane, of course refutes this.
'This is a key objection we get, but in reality this is not a risky strategy, it just challenges the way we have traditionally captured field data,' she says. 'You are using people who are nearest a location to carry out simple data-collection tasks that should require no training. They have their own kit - an iPhone - and are willing to do the job for a few pounds.
The quality of data is excellent and we have blacklisted fewer than a dozen individuals in seven months. Our agents also don't have any preconceptions about what they are supposed to do and so are giving honest feedback. They don't know who the client is, either.
The service could provide a nifty, cost-effective solution to the perennial problem of product and POS compliance - and one of its most popular uses is for checking up on professional field agents.
The blame for poor compliance has often been levelled at field agents not doing their job properly, but they might now be kept on their toes by these undercover, iPhone-wielding consumers. 'If you police yourself, do you do a good job?' asks SymphonyIRI's Kirk. 'A third party could give a worthwhile snapshot of what is happening with compliance.
5 - Sampling: the importance of 'try before you buy'
When consumers are strapped for cash, they are less likely to take a punt on a product and spend money on the thing without first finding out whether or not they like it. Sampling, therefore, has been an important tool during the downturn, particularly for premium brands.
This week, Cherry London launched a summer campaign for Malibu with the erection of the 'Malibutique' in London's Westfield shopping centre. The experiential space - which lets shoppers try out beauty products from brands such as Nails Inc, Fake Bake and Lypsy - will also appear at other shopping centres later this summer.
'During a recession, the perceived costs associated with buying products that under-deliver are higher, making consumers more cautious,' says Joseph Liu, senior brand manager at dessert maker Gu. 'Sampling offers consumers a risk-free opportunity to try before they buy, which is especially compelling with premium products since price is such a common purchase barrier. Often, consumers who experience a high-quality product realise that the additional benefit value justifies the price premium.'
In-store sampling was a crucial element of the brand's recent 'Give in to Gu' campaign, created by DDB UK. 'No one denies social media and word of mouth are playing a greater role, but nothing beats trying something for yourself,' adds Liu. 'Sampling will continue to be a tried-and-true tactic, albeit in an increasingly digital world; tactile and sensory experiences are still the most authentic.' For Gu, at least, the proof really is in the pudding.
Three rules of great in-store communication
1. Remember that there are different shoppers out there, for whom value is measured in different ways. It's not all about price-based communication; some people value the experience, others simplicity, and others, still, want to be the first to try new things or have the best-quality product every time. Focusing on the price-conscious shopper alone could mean missing out on potential sources of sales growth.
2. Ensure you dig deep and really understand the shopper. What motivates them to buy a product or causes them to disregard it? You will discover countless observations, but make sure you distil the key insights, which will inform your in-store communication strategy.
3. Push the boundaries and innovate, with manufacturer, suppliers and retailers all working together. Collaborative innovation is essential to driving footfall, basket spend and sales growth.
The Olay story - Three killer insights
'First, consumers felt very strongly that the skincare category was particularly hard to shop,' says Ioannis Papadopoulos, Olay business leader at P&G UK & Ireland, which recently carried out a substantial in-store marketing push to help create a premium positioning for its Olay Regenerist range.
'With hundreds of items in an average store and a new product launch every two months or so, it is not surprising,' adds Papadopoulos. 'On top of that, skincare is often not a planned purchase, so disrupting the shopper in-store is especially important.
'Second, in the shopper's mind, Olay couldn't command such a high premium. But we knew we had a great product that could challenge the super-premium skin creams that cost hundreds of pounds. Lastly, shoppers love to try, feel and smell a product before buying it - it's not only about wrinkle reduction or how many years younger you'll look.
'We set out to address each of the shopper insights, one by one, in what became a focused in-store communications strategy that would guide the launch. We glorified the sexy red pack everywhere to disrupt the shopper and put Olay front of mind when she might perhaps be shopping for something else.
We then worked with our R&D guys to develop a concise way to explain to the shopper how good this product really was - in fact, worth every penny. Then we challenged our product-supply colleagues to ensure we had a shopper-friendly tester solution to allow her to experience the product before she bought it.
'The launch was one of Olay's and the skincare market's most successful. Having a clear, shopper-based, in-store communications strategy, executed flawlessly, had a lot to do with it.'
Expert opinion - 'Serve shoppers' needs'
Ioannis Papadopoulos - Olay business leader, Procter & Gamble UK & Ireland
Some shoppers prioritise quality above everything else; others talk about how the shopping experience makes them feel; and then there are those whose main objective is to get their shopping done as quickly as possible. All these are part of her value equation.
Shoppers embrace value beyond price, and each consumer weighs this differently. With the right balance, we can serve all these different shopper needs. Pushing the boundaries of what's possible has put in-store communications right at the forefront of all our important launches.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk