Market Research Can Be Simple as Spending a Day in the Grocery Aisle

Talking with customers at Seattle's Whole Foods Market provided the insight for how to introduce the organic feed chain's first store in Portland.

Talking with customers at Seattle's Whole Foods Market provided the insight for how to introduce the organic feed chain's first store in Portland.

One of the most often stated reasons to skip market research is cost. However, there are many low-cost ways to get the market data you need.

The simplest form of research is to talk to customers. We were given the chance to handle the PR for the first Whole Foods Market in Oregon. To prepare, we asked for permission to go to its nearest store at the time, the University District in Seattle.

A team of us walked through the store and individually chatted with customers and with Whole Foods Market employees. When we compared notes, there was a universal thread – shoppers came for the food.

Well, you say, that's why all shoppers go to grocery stores. True, but the Whole Foods customers come because of the quality of the food, for which they are willing to pay extra.

I interviewed a U.S. Post Office deliveryman who stopped off at Whole Foods on a break. "I can't afford to buy all my groceries here," he told me, "but I buy all the food that I really want here." That summed it up.

Our team started our presentation to Whole Foods officials with a slide that said, "It's all about the food." A simple insight, but not necessarily an obvious one. The simplicity of our insight, which doubled as our proposed campaign tagline, won us the job.

The cost of our market research – a day away from the office and a tank of gas.

Talking to people – whether it's at a checkout counter or in a focus group – can yield invaluable information that puts you on a successful path. If we hadn't taken the time to drive to Seattle to spend a day in a Whole Foods Market, we probably would have talked up the store's uniqueness for selling only organic food and dreamed up ways to offset the chain's spendy reputation as "Whole Paycheck." And we would have lost the gig.

Our research reduced our thinking to the essence of Whole Foods, why people really came, why people in Portland would come. It guided our recommendations on what to emphasize, what to show and where to show it.  Everything we produced and distributed dripped with luscious pictures of food – from the artistic and colorful pepper displays to the enticing fish counter.

The research proved itself on the mark. People lined up around an entire block in the Pearl District waiting for the store to open. The store remained crowded all day and it turned out to the highest volume first-day opening in the Austin-based chain's history. It may still be.

There was no big data or scientific poll. We just talked to customers and let them show us the way to success. Who can't afford to do that?