May 25, 2007

Us v/s Him - Treatment of Outliers in Qualitative Research

Are qualitative researchers - an inclusive lot - when it comes to the treatment of 'Outliers' or Do we banish the stray thought that we hear in research - as a maverick of sorts....'non representative' of the audience at large?

I read this post on Helen's blog some days ago, that set me thinking. Is there a subconscious bias prevalent within the discipline of qual research - a bias that favors the majority such that we lay greater emphasis on the thoughts expressed by 'many' vis-a-vis those expressed by a 'few'?

There are two reasons I could think of - about why this could happen

1. An external bias (from the client)

Even though in the recent past people have begun to appreciate the kind of information that qualitative research brings to the fore - it is still, often judged by the same yardstick as is used in case of quant research. How many times have we heard clients challenge findings by asking questions like...can you tell me how many people felt that way and the researcher diffidently admitting...well, there were just a few. To which one would hear...well then lets not give it too much importance and move on...Why does this emphasis on numbers infiltrate qualitative studies as well? Is that the only metric by which the worth of something can be judged ? What makes people so easily believe that the view point expressed by 'one' or a 'few' is a not a thought worth pursuing ?

I suppose repeated exposure to this way of thinking could lead researchers to start questioning their own beliefs such that the next time one is faced with a stray thought like that - rather than sounding shaky in front of a client, the researcher may nip it in the bud.

2. The other is the researcher's own bias

For long qual researchers have relied on the technique of 'story telling' to analyse and present findings. This helps the researcher see inter-connections in the data set such that she can look at the data holistically and understand the consumer's mind set i.e. where the consumer is coming from. It is also an effective way of communicating findings to the client - to narrate the findings in a sequence that ultimately builds up to the climax i.e. the insight !

But how does one treat a piece of data that does not fit in with one's beautifully crafted story? For a long time I would keep aside that piece of data, treat it as an exception - that is what I had initially learnt - filter it out - if it does not fit in with your story. It is much later I learnt that...If it does not fit in with your story....there must be a bloody good reason for look at the data again...tap it gently from either side, sleep over it and you will eventually find out WHY!

I do not believe that every stray thought that one hears would definitely hide something significant under its skin. However, don't discard it or belittle it before giving it the attention it deserves. As Helen rightly puts it...

"An inconvenient little wobble in a research context, could mean something more significant in real life. I think we have a duty to report them. Carefully."

P.S - If you are used to thinking 'the more the merrier' - think again - more does not have to mean more number of people with single thought, it could also mean a few people with more number of thoughts


May 24, 2007

Does a supermarket have to be super sized?

In my last post on Retail in a transcultural environment I had talked about the ‘work arounds’ that consumers adopt to adapt to a foreign environment and I was to follow it up with a post that talked about these work arounds from the marketer’s / retailers perspective as retail grocery chains enter the Indian market

It’s been a long wait though I am glad I did, since having moved to India I have been able to compare my notes about what I saw of supermarkets in the UK with those that I see in India.

The biggest difference I noticed between grocery retail formats in UK v/s India is that unlike in the UK – there isn’t much of a difference….between the traditional grocery stores (the mom and pop variety) and the modern grocery formats (supermarkets as we know them). Let me explain…

Size & SKUs – super markets in the west are humongous (10 times or more) as compared to the tiny neighborhood grocery vendors. Naturally the number and variety of products stocked also increase proportionately. In India most supermarkets would be twice or at the most thrice as large as the mom-n-pop stores (leaving aside a few exceptions like Hypercity). I notice that the number of brands / product variants stocked does not differ significantly between stores of the two formats. This is partly related to the next point i.e. Location

Location – In the UK the corner stores have a locational advantage. One can literally run across the street and pick up emergency supplies (though that’s all they have) rather than having to drive down a few miles to reach a super market. In India it would not be uncommon to see traditional stores and supermarkets cheek by jowl with each other since the culture of driving down a few miles just to buy grocery has still not set in. Indians are habituated to having grocery stores in close proximity to their place of residence and that places constraints on the size and scale of operation a supermarket can potentially have.

Prices – In the UK a trip to the corner store would require you to shell out more pounds for your can of milk, where as in India prices do not vary too much by store format.

Opening Hours – In the UK the corner stores (run mostly by Indians / Pakistanis / Sri-lankans) stay open till late evening where as the supermarkets shut relatively earlier depending on where those are located. Most shops including the supermarkets on the ‘high street’ (chief shopping area) would shut by 6 p.m. – a grim reality that I’d rather not remind myself about. In India most shops stay open till 10 p.m. and since traditional and modern grocery stores operate in the same commercial zone their closing hours do not differ

Service – here I cannot comment too much about how different the levels of service are between the corner stores v/s supermarkets in the UK. I found a consistent professional attitude throughout. In India though, the traditional stores win hands down. To give you an idea let me cite my experience – I stay in a multi-lingual community. If I have to call the traditional store to place an order - I just have to specify my house number and he will greet me in the language I speak. They deliver within a span of 20 mins even if it is something that costs 20 bucks. If he does not have the product in his stock he would rather get it from the next store – than risk losing a customer. These stores often offer credit to known customers – if one is short of money the grocer’s typical response is… neither are you running away anywhere nor am I…pay me tomorrow !

Most of these traditional stores are family run businesses due to which the people employed have a greater interest in offering good service since it helps their business grow. The supermarket staff in stark contrast can project quite an indifferent attitude – at the end of the day it’s just a job for them and that too not a high paying one

Layout – is the most interesting element of this retail space. The mom and pop stores are breaking down their traditional structures and morphing into mini supermarkets – allowing the consumer to ‘walk in’ and browse through their wares which was earlier not possible partly due to the store layout and partly to blame were the ubiquitous but annoying sachets hanging from nowhere blocking one’s visibility. In their new avatars the traditional grocery stores are not only adding suffixes like ‘supermarket’ and ‘super-shopĂ©’ to their names but also creating a cleaner, more organized layout. In place of dingy store interiors and bags of grains mercilessly dumped at the store entrance one encounters neatly partitioned shelves with a well thought out organization of products such that you will no longer find your mosquito repellent next to your pulses.

While the smaller stores are imitating store and shelf layouts from super market, the latter are taking lessons from these small guys on how to woo the elusive consumer back. Spinach – a super market in Mumbai employed some of the local vegetable vendors to stand inside the store and ‘cajole and connect with’ the consumer for whom the sterile and indifferent store ambiance was an alien concept. After all these consumers (mostly women) are used to shopping at vegetable markets, where conversations are exchanged with vendors along with money and goods.

Poor_Planner talks about one more potential 'work around' - supermarket chains co-opting with the local vegetable vendor

It’s interesting to see how retail establishments from these two worlds are converging – borrowing elements that work and shunning away those that don’t. The small – medium size ‘supermarket’ ensconced in residential pockets with service standards to match that of the traditional grocery – sounds to me - more like the future than - what we know and have seen of super markets in the west


May 10, 2007

Is your music personal or social?

A few days back I was at the doctor’s clinic with 2 others - a guy and a girl. While the 2 girls had no problem chatting away for the 2 hours preceding the doctor's arrival, the guy was bored with no newsprint in sight. Out of courtesy we occasionally chatted with him. On one such occasion girl 2 told guy 1 - you should have carried your iPod. I peeped into my bag to see if i had mine...I did...I shut my bag. A pause later I asked him hesitantly - I have could have it if you like. He paused and that is alright! I was relieved.

Between the moments of my asking and his refusing, I was hoping he'd say NO. I don't know why - but it felt like I would be exposing a personal part of my life by handing over my iPod to him, though when i think about it logically, it only has my music files on it. It’s not without reason they decided to call it 'I'- Pod

Contrasting this with the Zune trying to create a 'social' - around the concept of listening to music I wonder how many people would be willing to share their music (via wifi) with strangers?
Even assuming one would come across another Zune owner in the vicinity - would it not be difficult to judge what his taste in music would be, to be able to decide which song to beam across to him? Would one not feel silly about sending in the 'wrong' kind of music?

Or was it not supposed to be a 'social' of strangers in the first place. Was it supposed to be friends introducing each other to music and thereby 'discovering' new tracks? Then why call it a ‘social’? The imagery that a social conjures up is of a large gathering of college kids, not really an intimate meeting of close friends.

It’s difficult to judge whether what's gone wrong with the Zune marketing is just a wrong choice of words or a larger issue of not getting the behavioral aspect around music listening right. But something surely is amiss and what’s more - even 6 months after launch people are talking about the same issues that users encountered when the product was just launched. But then again Microsoft was never known for being responsive to consumers.

On doing a blog search on Zune – I felt like I had walked into a soap opera – even if you tune into it after 6 months – you don’t hear anything new. The only thing different I read was the news about iPod launching their wifi enabled devices in the course of the year. It would be interesting to watch how they market this feature - if they decide to make a noise about it at all that is.

P.S – I did a random image search on the iPod to see what comes up. It’s interesting to view the range of situations in which iPod users interact with their devices – None of it seems like a social!

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Another metaphor for research...Doors!

There are things known and there are things unknown,
and in between are the doors

Jim Morrison