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Retail UX Research: Why Now Matters

Shopper insight research in Q4 is critical. Here’s a breakdown of how to make the most of the moment.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Prime Day. Q4 is an ideal time to conduct user experience and market research, especially for the retail, consumer packaged goods (CPG), and broader “shopper” sector.  

For insights professionals—whether title-holding researchers or product, design, and marketing folks looking to empathize with their audiences—this is not a time to recline and observe. Q4 is a great time for retailers to focus on user research. Below you’ll find strategies for starting a project (big or small) and tactics for making the most of this precious time.

But first, let’s clarify some definitions around the “retail” or “shopper” industry.

Defining the shopper and retail market

The terms “retail” and “shopper” describe any brand whose experience is focused on the finding, selecting, purchasing, and procuring of consumer goods. This includes big box brands with sizable physical properties, ecommerce sites with mobile and desktop experiences, and certainly those brands found within any of these spaces and places: the consumer packaged goods themselves. The word “retail” will serve as the umbrella term for this market throughout.

In short, if you’re curious about how a consumer’s omnichannel path to purchase might be optimized, read on.

Why conduct user research in Q4?

Let’s shift to a brief rationale for why now. Why not keep the experience trains running, ensure current brand and product ecosystem health, and take some extra time off?

The answer is timing and seasonality.  

Continuous research programs are one way to translate a desire for customer centricity into a repeatable, scaleable, and trackable business habit. Creating the practice of talking with customers, capturing contextual data, and just gleaning insight into the space consistently produces business impact.

The final three months of the year are an excellent time to launch retail research projects. Here are some of the reasons why you might kickoff research in Q4 2023.

1. Discover trends

What is popular? What is resonating with your core customer base? And is that reflected in your product experience? Could your tool be missing a growth driver? An influx of user traffic means an increase in behavioral data and opportunities to ask for in-depth feedback.

2. Pressure testing

Bug sourcing and squashing can be easier when 10 (or 100) times more folks visit your website, app, or store. Small optimizations like button placement or store layout shifts can drive big impact with the increased attention and traffic.

3. Define 2023 strategy

Too often, primary research is not used to inform planning. If opportunities (or liabilities) are discovered during research, that should lead to planning and roadmapping for the year ahead

4. Create alignment across teams

Year’s end often brings summits, off-sites, and leadership sessions. All of these are made more productive, grounded, and focused with user data. This is a time to share customer feedback, pain points, and POVs with those who would benefit most from being remindedof the mission, goals, and status of a product.

5. Advocacy

Helping your stakeholders feel more confident, even with a quick readout of a quick-turn project, can be critical this time of year. Hitting (or exceeding) those new year goals because of smarter, customer-focused inputs can be a force multiplier when negotiating headcounts, budget, and project scope for your practice.

More generally, it’s likely that your product experience is being used as you read this. Your tooling, features, and competitors are rarely as top-of-mind for users as they are in Q4. This hyper-recency effect can help mitigate recall bias, speed up recruitment timelines (consider the sheer scale of good fits for projects), and sharpen participant responses (they likely just did/are doing/will do what you’re interested in learning about).

It is for all of these reasons you’re likely to produce better research, whichever method or design you select.

Speaking of, let’s navigate to the kind of research you might create and launch next.

person on couch shopping online

Retail research study inspiration

Aside from unethical research practices, there are few “wrong” ways to launch retail research. Balance is key here, as your time will be drawn in directions professional and personal—prioritize based on your team, department, and company needs as well as budget and bandwidth. Here are a few research designs worth considering.

1. Cohort or panels

Panel (or cohort) studies ask a similar (or the same) group of participants to share data across a number of studies and time. This is especially useful if a key, critical, or emergent customer base is the focus (e.g., caregivers, brand loyalists, subscription customers). Whether the goal is to learn more about a specific group or to soften the edges across an experience suite (by asking a group to engage with multiple aspects of it), there are many potential learnings. To aid in the management (who has done what, sending messages, collating data), consider leveraging a customer research CRM tool.

Panel studies are also a strong way to build brand trust between customer and company. Customers feel trusted and—typically—meet that expectation with on-time and high-quality responses (if compensation matches asks, importantly). Whether it’s a gut check coming out of a weekly stand or opting folks into a new beta, a panel or cohort should be a retail standby.

2. Discovery

Too often, experience research fails to explore the touchpoints, decisions, and contextual data that drives a user TO a retail experience; similarly, retail teams often lack post-purchase insights (e.g., what was the shipping experience?; how did a customer navigate a repeatable purchase?). Discovery research is foundational to unlocking new (and missed) opportunities. Unmoderated approaches such as diary studies are useful for repeated, ongoing context that is participant-led. Don’t attempt to create questions for touchpoints outside your POV. Instead, let the customer drive.

Here is what that might look like in practice via any of the unmoderated tools available.

Instructions: Over the next week, share a moment anytime you discover a product you want to learn more about.

Sample questions:

  1. In a few words, describe how you found this product.
  2. What is the name of this product?
  3. Rank the following from most to least influential: Reviews, Price, Uniqueness, etc.
  4. How likely are you to purchase this product in the next 24 hours: Not at all likely ---- Very likely
  5. What else should we know about this moment?

You could flex the question script depending on the sample size and interest. The goal of discovery methods is to surface the new ways retail customers are finding your (and competitor) brands: the influencers, the motivations, the decision points, the timing. With even a sample of ten customers, a week’s worth of data could help the market research, product-fit, and design teams keep the product and experience fresh.

3. Omnichannel journeys

Many retail product experiences span physical and digital touchpoints, regardless of your specific product’s channel presence in one space (e.g., digital vs. physical) or the other. Customers find inspiration in many places, which can translate into research (online or in person), and just maybe, a purchase. That purchase might be spur of the moment or deliberate. It might be bought online and shipped to store, shipped to home and returned in store, etc.

The point is that today’s retail consumer is floating between a host of places, spaces, and touchpoints. What are you missing? Is there a part of your journey that is offering more friction (or delight) than your team is aware of? As with Discovery studies, unmoderated tools are an accessible way to create “set and forget” research designs, especially if the tool has a mobile component. It’s critical to consider the steps themselves for unmoderated journey mapping studies: will you provide a sequence of steps for participants to share moments along or will you let participants self-identify their journey? No way is better than the other and should align with your specific need.

If interviews are the only tool available, ask participants to take pen to paper and draw their journey with your brand as pre-interview homework. Then, have them act as a tour guide during the session, describing the milestones, markers, and decision points. These illustrations make for eye-opening shareouts in comms channels or readouts.

4. Competitive intel

Depending on your org’s market maturity, competitive research may not be top-of-mind. During the rush of the holiday shopping season, however, it could be very useful to know the extent to which—or whether at all—your brand has the cache leadership expects. Are customers willing to wait in line on Black Friday to burst through your doors? Or are they primarily deal seeking for the bargain of the year? Chances are your customer base includes both, but competitor research can go a long way. Competitor research can inform product developments, but it’s also a critical form of brand feedback. Are you the “trusted” partner? The “speed and efficiency” place? In a head-to-head with a competitor, what is likely to tip a purchase decision your way?

All of these insights are reasons to launch competitive research. Whether that’s via panels, surveys, or in moderated interviews, the subtle nuances of how a customer considers your brand has meaningful impact to core retail metrics: cart abandonment, items per purchase, and repeat sales. Conducting this kind of research in Q4 is a perfect example of maximizing the top-of-mindedness of shopper priorities.

Who knows, you might just learn about a new, emergent player coming for your core base.

These are just some of the research approaches you and your team might take. Let’s close with some best practices and considerations when working in this jam-packed final quarter.

smartphone with order online text

Retail research best practices

Regardless of when and what you decide, here are a few best practices to consider when launching research.

First, be ruthless in question selection.

UXRs report that—regardless of the quarter—there is rarely enough time for analysis. Programming questions without a clear analysis plan can lead to that “oh shit” moment after the data begin rolling in.

To avoid this, revisit the goal of the project. Even exploratory projects can be goal aligned (e.g., To uncover the sources of price comparison for our core user base.”)

Before sending that first invite message, scan each and every question of your design, asking “How will I analyze that question?” or “How does that question help create clarity for my project’s goal?” Your future self will thank the current one for including only those questions whose purpose can be traced to the project’s focus.

Second, invite stakeholders when and where possible.

This is a tried and true way to socialize your work, inject empathy across teams, and add some action to your eventual insights. Some teams are going to be neck-deep in work, but others may have more bandwidth and interest, especially if you’ve taken the time to consider how your learnings might help their workflows and planning goals. Getting a PM or marketing leader to sit in on two interviews or review one participant’s diary entries goes a long way to creating UX insight stickiness.

Third, put customers in control.

We don’t know what we don’t know. Whether it’s a large-scale survey or an unmoderated journey project, create space for your customers to share experiences in their own words. With a simple open-ended, “What else should we know?” your team has the opportunity to learn a lot. You might also consider a photo or video question for a richer user POV.

Finally, share snackable insights.

There will likely be time early in Q1 for deeper, more systematic analysis, complete with reports, slide decks, and repository entries. For now, when learnings—and attentions—are time-sensitive, opt for “snackable sharing.”

Drop a quote from an interview with a link to the full recording, share a high-level stat, and some possible conclusions. The goal is to remind your team that research is a regular, ongoing activity and that you (or your team) are valuable partners to meeting company goals.

Ben Wiedmaier
Senior Content Marketing Manager
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