We know what you want!

Big Brother is watching us. CCTV follows us around the streets, our Oyster cards record our travelling habits underground and our loyalty cards provide the supermarkets with a valuable insight into our weekly shop. Every time we buy online, or subscribe to something new, our details can be shared with other companies, who will pay huge sums to know that little bit more about us.
It’s all in the name of market research and it has moved on a lot from the days when a room full of housewives were asked which brand of washing powder they used. Today, we talk about R&D departments and products take years and millions of pounds to come to market.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the garden centre supply sector has a fairly limited brief when developing products, compared with say car manufacturers or supermarket chains. But this is not the case, and Garden Centre Update spoke to several companies about the detailed work they carry out before their products make it onto the shelves.
All agreed that the market research process never really stops. Johnson Lawn Seed is typical in its approach, “We do several types of market research – on a more informal basis we ask our customers for feedback on any new ideas/products/initiatives we have in the pipeline,” says Miranda Harris – Marketing Manager. “If it is a new product we will show them visuals of the packaging and discuss key selling points etc. More formally, our parent company carries out regular consumer research in Europe. This year a survey was carried out by GfK in Germany and we hope to repeat the exercise in the UK in 2008.”
Jane Lawler, head of marketing at Bayer Garden says the amount of market research carried out depends on the size of the project. “Setting up simple interviews or focus groups may take only a few weeks from brief to results, but sometimes this would form only stage one of a process – results might indicate more development is required and this would then be checked in subsequent tests. For projects like brand awareness and attitudes, or consumer segmentation studies that help us to identify consumers with common values and consumption habits, the process is ongoing and we need to update our data regularly as things change.”
It is all too easy to be too close to the product one is bringing to market – and this is one reason why market research is so essential. What a manufacturer thinks is the right product for his or her customers might not necessarily be the case.
Chris Nickson from Tetra discovered shocking statistics into the habits of fish keepers when his company researched the market. “Figures from OATA revealed that an astounding 50% of fish keepers give up in just three years and 75% in six years.  This means that as an industry we need to do more to make sure we offer our customers high quality products that offer real benefits.  What fish keepers want are food and care ranges that keep their fish healthy and help maintain clear water and an attractive looking tank.  Only by understand and meeting these needs through consistent investment in research and product development will we start to reduce this drop out rate. ”
This underlines the point that no news from the consumer is necessarily bad news, as long as it imparts valuable information about buying and user habits. Keith Nicholson, head of marketing for Westland Horticulture makes the point. “Any research can be valuable even if it doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. We would share research openly with customers and do on many occasions.” 
One of the biggest pitfalls of conducting market research is the risk of skewing the results into a desired direction, rather than accepting that sometimes the consumer doesn’t want what you are offering. As Jane Lawler points out, “There are plenty of traps to full into when designing research. It is too easy to set out to find a specific result and then inadvertently build a research methodology that is predisposed to find the positive! For example, asking closed questions like “Do you consider environmental impact when doing the garden?” Of course, nearly everyone will say “yes” because that is what they think you are expecting to hear. We always employ reputable and independent market research consultants or agencies who use recognised techniques to ensure the quality of our research is always as high as possible.”
Andrew King, Chief Executive of Dancing Bee, the specialist DVD producer, agrees. “(You must ask) well-structured open questions, and not inadvertently bias from the way you ask questions or the emphasis you make. You get quality out if you get quality candidates in, and this means good screening and being prepared for this process being longer than you may like.” Dancing Bee screens consumers who visit garden centres at least three times a year, and as a result its independent market research helped the company to identify the most important horticultural topics. “The feedback on organic and wildlife resulted in us filming two new films to satisfy a clear and growing market need (How To garden Organically and also How To create a Wildlife Garden)” adds King.
But the process of market research is not just about asking questions – it is also about observing the buying process itself. Many companies these days undertake hall testing, which is where a buying environment can be replicated and consumers buying habits watched. “We carry out hall testing to establish effectiveness on the fixture and to help replicate retail environment,” says Keith Nicholson from Westland Horticulture.
Bayer Garden also conducts hall tests where people are invited to visit a mock up shop/fixture with new and existing products and are then asked about their preferences and reasons for choice. The company even goes one step further and videos people’s buying choices. “(We conduct) shopping behaviour studies which video consumers at the fixture and then face to face interviews afterwards – used to identify cognitive behaviour as well as find out about people’s attitudes to products and packaging, merchandising and point of sale,” says Jane Lawler.
As for future trends in market research, our panel are in agreement that there are many untapped opportunities on the internet. Andrew King from Dancing Bee sums up: “Clearly the whole aspect of identifying and researching the growing on-line consumer and what matters to them will perhaps lead to new techniques. Although traditional research methods do still provide a reliable solution currently.”
Steph Norbury