How research can breathe life into a dying category

By 12th December 2017 HRA Blog, Latest News No Comments
category research

It’s a well-known principle that all products have a lifecycle, and the same goes for grocery categories. Even the most successful brands will stagnate if they don’t keep up with rapidly evolving consumer trends in the wider grocery market. The way to avoid this is often straightforward: make alterations to your products in line with consumer trends and keep an eye on what your competitors are doing. But what if the key consumer trends aren’t immediately obvious to your category? And what if your competitors are also suffering, driven by the general decline in the category?

Get to grips with what consumers really think
The most obvious answer here is to directly ask consumers why they aren’t shopping in the category anymore. While a quantitative method may be appealing to get the perspective of as many people as possible, the most effective method is likely to be exploratory qualitative research which will help you really get under the skin of the problem. It’s no use for consumers to tell you they don’t buy the product anymore because it’s unhealthy – you need to know exactly why they think it’s unhealthy – is it the packaging? The branding? The ingredients? And ultimately you need to know what you can do about it.

Use group discussion to facilitate ideas
Focus groups are an ideal method to get some real insight into what consumers are thinking. Selecting a sample of current and previous shoppers in the category is a good way of promoting discussion and getting to grips with the appealing elements as well as the struggles faced in the category. With respondents allowed to bounce off each other, this allows them to come up with and develop ideas they may not have come up otherwise and remind each other of things they may have forgotten. For example, when asking respondents how they think the category has changed over the last 3 years, they will trigger memories in each other and we are likely to get a more developed response than asking respondents individually. Furthermore, with questions where an answer is not immediately obvious and require a high level of thought, this is where group discussion can be particularly useful.

Projective techniques can be a particularly valuable method to use within focus groups through allowing us to assess the subconscious attitudes towards and perceptions of the category. These techniques can really highlight emotional connections with a type of product or brand – something which could be of great use in improving the efficacy of your marketing.

See the category in context
Where focus-groups are able to be conducted in-store, a helpful method we tend to use is to take respondents out to see the fixture mid-way through the group. Having already answered some questions on the category before going out on the shop floor, this primes respondents on what to look out for and promotes full engagement with the fixture. This interaction can bring out new ideas and viewpoints which respondents may not have been aware of before and ensures the discussion is grounded in the real-life shopping experience. Through also viewing other nearby fixtures, this allows respondents to see the category in context which encourages them to highlight what the category is missing and what ideas could be taken from other product areas. With a category suffering, buyers will want to do whatever possible to bring it back to growth and tend to be amenable to allowing research to take place within their store. Doing this can not only cut down on venue fees but is a perfect opportunity to go back to the supermarket buyers and give them recommendations specific to their store.

Ask the experts
While it’s all well and good getting recommendations from consumers on how to improve their shopping experience in the category, it’s no use making these recommendations if they can’t be actioned. Typical recommendations which arise during these groups include; ‘make the product dual sited’ or ‘put it in the chiller’. However, this is not always feasible. Through conducting interviews with Store Managers handling the aisle, we often find they have real insight into what would work and what wouldn’t. It’s therefore important to get the perspective of these people to sense check any recommendations on what to do to optimise the fixture.

Although in-store methods can improve sales in one store, when a category is in free fall there is likely a wider problem to address. While focus groups will still help identify these problems, when the answer isn’t related to merchandising, these issues can be harder to tackle. Learning that consumers view the whole category as ‘old-fashioned’ is difficult to address when you only make up a small part of it. In this case, investing in informed NPD guided by grocery trends and well-targeted marketing is the best way forward. Sharing your research findings about consumer perspectives of the category with your buyers is also valuable, helping cement your brand as a forward-thinking category leader and ultimately allowing you to have a greater influence on the category.

When marketing and NPD concepts are more concrete, this is then the perfect time to make use of quantitative methods to help decide on which ideas would appeal best to the target demographic.

Want more information on how to use research to turn your sales around? Contact


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