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Observational and tracking methods

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Observation is the process of watching actual human behaviour, phenomena or events and recording them as they occur.

Like many marketing research tools, modem observational research has its roots in anthropology and sociology.

The technique began as participant observation around the turn of the century when anthropologists began collecting data first-hand.

Observation does not often appear as a research methodology in the marketing literature: this may be because it is sometimes hard to quantify the outcomes of observational research at the outset, or because it is considered time-consuming, or sometimes, it may be difficult to generalize the findings.

Nevertheless, in cross-cultural market research, observation may be the only way to obtain data on consumers’ behaviour in some situations.

A researcher with no knowledge of the culture may not know what questions to ask in a questionnaire.

In such a situation, videotaping of consumers ensures that a visual record is compiled, and helps to bring home issues relating to a specific cultural context.

Videotaping also provides a wealth of information about visual cues and their role in product evaluation and purchase behaviour. These cues are not easily obtained from other forms of data collection.

Criteria for using observation
Observation is an appropriate methodology for conducting market research when at least one of four criteria is met (Boote and Mathews, 1999).

The phenomenon is easily observable
For example, if a researcher wants to know why an individual or a family purchased a certain car, observation research may not provide the answer.

This is because the consumer behaviour being studied is public, rather than private, behaviour.

Public behaviour refers to behaviour that occurs in a setting the researcher can readily observe.

Actions such as cooking, playing with one’s children, or private worshipping are not public activities and are therefore not suitable for observational studies.

One of the main advantages of observational research is the way it gives direct access to social interaction.

It is a flexible technique, and can be used very effectively to enrich and supplement other methods.

It can also be used profitably at the start of a study to uncover promising areas of investigation.

From the respondents’ point of view, it is probably the most convenient form of data gathering because it requires no effort on their part.

In the case of covert participant observation, however, there may be an ethical dimension to be considered if the actions of the individual being observed are criminal or reprehensible.

The phenomenon is a social process or a mass activity
Observation is useful in the analysis of large-scale social processes, or mass-activities, where a pattern of activity is under investigation, and aggregate statistics are all that is required.

The behaviour of interest must be repetitive, frequent, and of relatively short duration. This means that the event must begin and end within a reasonably short time.

Suitable examples include a shopping trip to a supermarket, waiting in a queue at a bank, buying an item of clothing, and observing children as they watch television.

Some decisions take a long time, and it would be unrealistic to observe the entire process. Observation of the entire decision-making process for purchasing a house, which might take months, is not feasible.

Because of this, observational research is usually limited to scrutinizing activities that can be completed in a relatively short time or to observing certain phases of activities with a long time span.

The phenomenon occurs at a subconscious level
Observation is useful for examining subconscious influences on consumer behaviour, for example, the studies linking music to shopping behaviour.

Leicester University’s Music Research Group reported that the type of music played can influence the type of product sold (Hawkes, 1997).

Such research is best investigated by observation because respondents to a questionnaire would probably regard themselves as being too sophisticated to allow music to influence their speed of shopping and the type of products they buy.

Observational techniques, being unobtrusive, can uncover links between subtle influences and subconscious changes in shopping and buying behaviour; linkages that may not be uncovered through other methodologies.

Also, what people say is often different from what they do. Observation can provide an accurate record of individuals’ actions in situations where they do not wish to reveal their behaviour or where they genuinely do not have a “conscious” reason for their behaviour.

Faulty recall occurs when actions or activities are so automatic that the respondent cannot recall specifics about the behaviour under question.

Observation is necessary under such circumstances to understand the behaviour at hand. For example, an observation technique called “actual radio measurement” using a high-gain antenna, digital frequency scanner and computer, can be used to determine which radio stations were listened to by commuters in their cars.

Consumers are either unable or unwilling to communicate directly with the researcher
For a television program such as Postman Pat, which is aimed at pre-school-aged children, any research aimed at gauging their reactions would have to be observationally based because the children themselves are still learning to communicate.

More information could be gleaned by observing the children watching the program than by attempting to ask them even simple questions.

Classification of observation methods
Qualitative techniques include the class of observation methods – techniques in which the researcher relies on powers of observation rather than communicating with a respondent in order to obtain information.

Observation requires something to watch and because our memories are faulty, researchers depend on devices such as videotapes, audiotapes, handwritten notes, or some other tangible record.

At first glance, it may seem that observation studies can occur without any structure; however, it is important to adhere to a plan so that observations are consistent and comparisons or generalizations can be made without worrying about anything confounding the findings.

There are strong arguments for considering the observation of continuing behavior as an integral part of the research design. Some of these are the following:

? Casual observation is an important exploratory method. Managers continually monitor such variables as competitive prices and advertising activity, the number of customers waiting for service, and the trade journals on executives’ desks, to help to identify problems and opportunities.

? Systematic observation can be a useful supplement to other methods. During a personal interview, the interviewer has the opportunity to note the type, condition, and size of the residence, the respondent’s race, and the type of neighborhood with regard to locality and qualities of homes. Seldom is this data source adequately exploited in surveys.

? ”Simple” observation may be the least expensive and most accurate method of collecting purely behavioural data such as in-store traffic patterns or traffic passing a certain point on a road.

Thus, people’s adherence to safety rules before and after a safety campaign can be measured most easily by counting the number of people who cross against a red light.

Sometimes observation is the only research option. This is the case with physiological phenomena or with young children who cannot articulate their preferences or motives.

Note that each observation technique is unique in how it obtains observations. There are two general ways of organizing observations:

? direct versus indirect

? disguised versus undisguised

Direct versus indirect observation
Observing behaviour as it occurs is called direct observation. For example, to find out how often shoppers squeeze tomatoes to assess their freshness, researchers can watch people actually picking up the tomatoes.

Observing types of hidden behaviour, such as past behaviour, relies on indirect observation.

With indirect observation, the researcher sees the effects or results of the behaviour rather than the behaviour itself. Types of indirect observations include archives and physical traces.

Archives are secondary sources such as historical records. These sources contain a wealth of information and should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Many types of archives exist. For instance, records of calls may be inspected to determine how often salespeople make cold calls.

Physical traces are tangible evidences of some event, consumption or conducted behaviour.

When questionnaire-based methods appear to provide invalid results, the analyst will need to look for other means of gathering data.

Research based on retail scanners and software for tracking surfers’ behaviour on the web are sophisticated ways of gathering data.

Alternative techniques of data gathering usually imply that the respondent is not aware of the behaviour being researched.

Therefore such methods are sometimes called noncreative or unobtrusive techniques in an attempt to differentiate them from reactive or obtrusive ways (questionnaire-based methods).

“Classical” examples of empirical unobtrusive studies are (Webb et al., 2000, 35-52):
? The wear of floor tiles in a museum indexed by the replacement rate was used to determine the relative popularity of exhibits.

? The setting of car radio dials brought in for service was used to estimate share of listening audience of various radio stations.

? Cigarette butts collected after a football game were treated as indicator of market shares of selected brands.

Advantages of unobtrusive methods, according to Kellehear (1993) are:
? The study of actual rather than reported behaviour.
? Safety (they are regarded as discreet and harmless).
? Repeatability (re-checking is possible).
? Non-disruptive, non-reactive.
? Research access is easy (co-operation of others is rarely needed).
? Inexpensive.
? Good for analysis over time.

Disadvantages of unobtrusive methods, according to Kellehear (1993) are:
? The records may be of poor quality or distorted.
? Records are seen from the point of view of the stranger (de-contextualizing).
? Intervening (exogenous) variables may distort data.
? Recording is selective and may be biased.
? Over-reliance on a single method.
? The application (interrogation) range is limited (the focus is narrow).

Unobtrusive indirect observational research
A sample of nationally distributed flyers was collected at recycling centers and analyzed for fingerprints by an expert, for an empirical study aimed at determining the readership patterns of sales flyers.

A total of 117 sales flyers was collected across seven different retailers/distributors. The flyers were of different sizes, ranging from six to 120 pages (front and rear pages were ignored).

The total number of pages analyzed was 4,370. Some 32 percent (38/117) flyers contained at least one valid fingerprint.

The 4,370 pages revealed 395 fingerprints corresponding to 9 percent. The “readership” of a flyer was estimated by dividing the number of issues with a positive identification of at least one valid fingerprint by the total number of issues of the flyer.

While the fingerprint approach to assessing readership appears to be inappropriate for flyers that do not have many pages, it seems to work for voluminous flyers like Flyer 1.

Flyers of more than 100 pages appear to contain several fingerprints provided they have been studied.

When reading a catalogue, the reader needs to wet her/his finger several times. When the wetted finger is used for flipping the page, a trace consisting of 98 percent water and 2 percent amino acid is left on the page.

Amino acid can be made visible using chemical materials. The study is described in Schmidt and Krause (2000, 2001); FPs/38 Fingerprints%20JMR.htm

The cost of advertising space corresponds closely to the readership as reported by the research agency (59 percent).

Disguised versus undisguised
Disguised observation is another method where the subject is unaware of being observed. In contrast to unobtrusive techniques that deal with traces of past behaviour, disguised methods analyze respondents’ current behaviour.

An example of this is “mystery shopping,” where researchers pose as customers to record and report on staff.

One-way mirrors and hidden cameras are other ways of preventing subjects from becoming aware that they are being observed.

This disguise is important because if the observed were aware of the observation, they might change their behaviour, resulting in observations of atypical behaviour.

Sometimes it is impossible for the respondent to be unaware of the observation, and this is a case of undisguised observation.

Laboratory settings, observing a sales representative’s behaviour on sales calls, and people meters (a device that is attached to a television set to record when and to what station a set is tuned), must all be used with the subject’s knowledge.

Because people might be influenced by knowing that they are being observed, it is wise to minimize the presence of the observer to the maximum extent possible.

Machine versus human observation
Observation is often analyzed in terms of who (or what) is doing the observation. Where the observation is less structured, particularly in the initial stages of a research project, a person, rather than a device, is often considered to be appropriate.

Because, while a device is superior in terms of speed, a human-being is superior in terms of interpretation.

Large-scale, statistically-driven observation often necessitates the use of a mechanical device as the observer – such as an electronic point of sale scanner, which is used to track sales.

It is also the case that certain observable phenomena may not be visible to the naked eye – hence the development of equipment such as the pupil meter and the psycho galvanometer.

Mechanical observation methods
In many situations the use of devices is more suitable than a person collecting primary data.

Such devices may reduce the cost and improve the flexibility, accuracy and other functions of data collection.

For example, it would not be feasible for researchers to sit in people’s homes to record television viewing habits.

Cameras and audiovisual devices can record behaviour more objectively and in greater detail than human observers.

Several types of devices are used to measure and collect physiological actions and reactions of consumers.

Traffic counters
Together with retail scanners, this is perhaps the most common form of mechanical observation research.

As the name implies, the devices are used to measure the vehicular flow over a particular stretch of road.

In countries where billboards are used, outdoor advisers rely on traffic counts to determine the number of exposures per day to a specific hoarding.

Retail chains use the information to ascertain where to place a particular type of store. For example, convenience stores require a moderately high traffic volume to reach target levels of profitability.

Retail scanners
Scanners at grocery checkout counters, read a product’s bar code (which holds the universal product code) and automatically print out the price.

The result is a cash register receipt prepared, in the ideal case, entirely without manual data entry.

The information scanned not only provides pricing information, but is also stored in a computer where it is used to update inventory records and trigger necessary reorders.

A shop no longer needs to rely on average sales or a time-consuming physical inventory to determine which items to order each day, because it has a daily record of what was sold the day before. The data have value beyond the individual store and store chain as well.

A manufacturer that has access to scanner data from a random sample of shops has an instant access to the market share of his brands.

This scanner data enables the manufacturer to assess in which stores the products do well and where more effort is needed. Third, a retail chain can quickly react to changes in demand for the products it sells.

Marketing research in action
Wal-Mart’s fast reaction
On the afternoon of 1l September 2001, managers at Wal-Mart were alerted to a sudden and significant rise in demand for US flags by the company’s information system and data mining software.

Immediately, a large order for flags was made. Because of the size of the order, US production capacity was absorbed by Wal-Mart for several days.

When the managers of competing retailers a day or so later became aware of the same increase in demand for flags at their stores, they also ordered more flags.

However, all capacity for the next days was occupied by the order from Wal-Mart. Some days later, Wal-Mart managers noticed a decline in the demand for the flags.

Consequently, they resold most of the flags still on stock to producers who took them back so they could meet orders from Wal-Mart’s competitors.

When the competitors finally received the flags they found out that demand for them had almost vanished. Source: Roussel-Dupre (2002)

The ability to correlate scanner-recorded sales with special offers, advertising and displays could yield insights into the effectiveness of each of these marketing tools (Ghosh, 1997).

Scanner-based technology is expected to replace consumer purchasing diary methods within a decade.

A scanner-based panel typically consists of between 2,000 and 6,000 representatively selected households.

Panel members shop, using a unique bar-coded identity card, which is presented at the tills in scanner-equipped stores.

In this way, it is possible to track each household’s purchasing, item by item. The system allows researchers to build an extensive purchase behaviour database on each household.

With such a measure of household purchasing, it is possible to manipulate marketing variables, such as TV advertising or consumer promotions, or introduce a product and analyze changes in consumer buying behaviour.

For strategic tests of potential marketing plans, the scanner-based panel can be split into two or more subgroups.

Then, through direct marketing, a different treatment can be delivered to each group. Resulting sales and profits are analyzed.

For advertising issues, one half of the panel could view a test commercial, the other half a control advert.

In summary, scanner-based panels allows the marketing manager to answer critical marketing questions such as:

? What volume level is possible with my brand?
? Who are my brand’s buyers and what else do they buy?
? How many consumers will try my new brand and how many will try it again?
? Will a product line extension “steal” market share from my existing brands?
? What are the sales implications of a change in advertising, price, package, or shelf placement?

This device observes and records changes in the diameter of a person’s pupils. The subjects view an advertisement at a constant brightness and distance.

The assumption is that increased pupil size reflects positive attitudes, interest, and arousal in an advertisement.

A pupilometer may help the manufacturer to find out if consumers perceive the message of an advertisement in the way it was intended.

Assume, for instance, that the pupilometertest of an advertisement for potato chips reveals that the consumers’ interest centers on a delicious steak that appears in the advertisement along with the chips.

The insight obtained by the pupilometer-test may motivate the producer to change the advertisement, say, by making the chips look more appetizing.

Eye-tracking monitor
This device observes and records a person’s unconscious eye movements. The monitor can determine which parts of the stimulus (e.g. a magazine advert, TV commercial, package design) are seen and which are ignored.

This data can provide insights to alter selling points in advertising. Assume that a sample of consumers is asked to monitor an advertisement for an expensive healthcare product.

Nevertheless, the eye tracking shows that the respondents focus on the attractive model and on the price, but that they ignore the product specification and the brand’s name. This finding may cause the producer to reconsider the advertising layout.

Electroencephalogram (EEG)
This device measures rhythmic electrical fluctuations of the brain. It is probably the most sensitive procedure for detecting arousal, but it also involves expensive laboratory equipment, and complex data analysis using sophisticated software.

Market researchers claim EEG can be used for evaluating, among other effects, viewers’ attention and their understanding of an advertisement.

Galvanic skin response (GSR)
The device resembles a lie detector and measures changes in the electric resistance of the skin associated with activation responses.

A small electric current of constant intensity is applied to the skin via electrodes attached to the fingers.

Changes in the voltage between the electrodes indicate the level of stimulation. GSR is a popular device for measuring activation, because the equipment is portable and not expensive. It is used primarily to measure stimulus response to print adverts or TV commercials.

People meter
This device is a microwave-based device, that replaces passive meters and handwritten diaries.

The device is connected to the television set and the data it provides are used to measure the size of television audiences.

It provides information on what shows are being watched, the number of households watching, and which family members are watching.

Activity is recorded automatically; household members only have to indicate their presence in the room by pressing a button.

Website tracking
Website visitors leave traces, cookies, which are small files stored on a web surfer’s computer that identify the user’s computer.

Tracking software can examine people’s browsing and interactive website behaviour, so measuring the popularity of websites.

The software is installed on participating consumers’ computers. The system may also be employed by the management of a company for analyzing the workforce’s usage of a corporate intranet.

In both settings the person’s choice of pages and the keystrokes made can be saved in a so-called weblog file that can subsequently be loaded into statistical software or a spreadsheet.

Videotaping shopping behaviour
Filming can trace the flow of shoppers through a store. By comparing the flows of a representative sample of shoppers, the store managers can determine where best to place such items as impulse goods.

Also, the store can change layouts and see how this modifies shopping patterns. For example, supermarkets typically place necessities towards the rear of the store, hoping that shoppers place more items in their basket on impulse as they move down the aisle to reach the milk, bread, and other necessities.

Human observation: mystery shopping
In order to reach service excellence, customer satisfaction data based on surveys are needed; however, they will not be sufficient for continuing the change process over time.

To achieve that, mystery shopping can be a useful instrument in addition to the more often used survey methods (Wiele et al. 2005).

Mystery shopping is a process for measuring service quality, with feedback, that is understandable to the frontline people in retailing.

It is a form of participant observation that uses researchers to act as potential customers to monitor the quality of processes and procedures used in the delivery of a service.

The need for specific performance information stems from the increasing emphasis being placed on service performance.

While standards are invariably set by head office staff and senior management, the task of delivering these standards falls to individuals at the service encounter. Variations in service performance can have a big effect on customer satisfaction.

Step 1: The objectives
1. Know what you want to get out of the shopping program.

2. The objectives should be related to having satisfied customers as well as satisfied employees.

3. Mystery shopping is meant to reinforce positive behaviour and modify improper behavior, but not to punish.

Objectives for mystery shopping programs include:
? to act as a diagnostic tool identifying failings and weak points in an organization’s service delivery, especially the customer contacts of frontline personnel;

? to encourage, develop and motivate service personnel by linking with appraisal, training and reward mechanisms, and to enable marketers to scrutinize and fine tune the human element;

? to assess the competitiveness of an organization’s service provision by benchmarking it against the offerings of others in an industry in order to identify areas that need training or further training. It can also be used to reveal how employee contact with customers is positive.

Step 2: The evaluation form
The use of employees to define and set the measurable standards to be met. Determine what customers value and incorporate these into the evaluation form.

Often a significant amount of effort is put into implementing the mystery shopping research within an organization before the research is undertaken.

Seminars, presentations, and newsletters are used to explain the purpose of the research, the standards against which the service is being measured, and the manner in which the result will feed into appraisal and reward systems. Such briefings encourage a high degree of staff acceptance.

In principle, there are two ways of evaluating service quality:
? Mystery shoppers visit the shop, posing as a customer, blending with other customers, while observing customer service and the sales skills of staff. After leaving the shop, they file a report, which is sent to the client.

? Another way for mystery shoppers to obtain information from frontline employees is to meet them in focus groups or individually to discuss the employee’s impressions and experience with the customer and the service delivery system.

Results from these interviews are then used to prepare a list of characteristics the employees view as important to customers.

Which method to use is up to the company, but staff acceptance of mystery shopping is seen as critical if the results are to be taken seriously and if industrial relations within the organization are not to suffer.

Shopper evaluations can be in the form of a checklist or an open, made-to-order format, which is more time-consuming to complete.

In formulating the shopper questions, open-ended questions probing for more information are suggested, such as: “How did the employee describe the product or service?”

The service rating gives points on a scale of ten on the overall standard of service. Points are given for a specific action or attributes.

For instance, a welcoming smile is worth four points, a well-dressed server is worth two points. Service standards that are to be evaluated must be identified to the employee and should be easily measurable by the internal or external mystery shopper.

Step 3: The mystery shopper
Select, inform, and train the mystery shopper in line with the company’s objectives. The shopper must match a customer profile that is appropriate for the scenario that they are being asked to enact.

In selecting the mystery shopper, the company must decide whether it will use in-house personnel or external shoppers.

In-house shoppers are usually quality control experts from corporate headquarters. The advantages with this type of shopper may be lower cost and better knowledge of the company’s objectives and products.

However, the cost of using corporate personnel may be hidden in the overall budget and there is a stronger chance of the shopper being recognized.

The use of external mystery shoppers may have certain drawbacks. Obtaining consistent shopping evaluations from external shoppers requires the preparation of the shopper. A high turnover of mystery shoppers may also influence the quality of the shopping evaluation.

Training and informing the mystery shoppers is important, with regard to the briefing and data collection skills.

Shoppers receive a detailed briefing on the scenario that they are to enact, focusing on their personal characteristics, the questions they should ask and the behaviours they should adopt.

They are then tested on these elements to ensure that the service encounter is realistic and reduce the opportunity for the true identity of the mystery shopper to be detected.

The training of data collection skills focuses on identifying the elements of the service to be observed as well as the retention and recording of information.

Retention and recording of information is particularly important, as the shoppers cannot complete an assessment form during the service encounter. Therefore shoppers should receive memory testing and training.

Step 4: Conducting the shop visit
Produce an unbiased, mainly objective evaluation (but include a limited amount of subjective information) of the shopping experience.

With the objectives of the shopping visit in mind, an evaluation checklist or more subjective information collection form in hand, and any training that might be necessary, the mystery shopper is ready to conduct the visit.

Branches and employees involved in the program could be forewarned of the visit. Some companies remind their employees continuously of the mystery shopper by using posters behind the counter where customers cannot see them.

Other companies use stickers attached to workstations to remind employees of service standards.

For Bose, it is important for employees to greet customers within ten seconds of their arrival.

They should introduce themselves, or, if they’re busy with another customer, acknowledge the customer’s presence with a nod or other gesture.

Once with the customer, they must be friendly, helpful and demonstrate product knowledge.

One of the things customers have told Bose is that salespeople can increase satisfaction by making them feel welcome.

The Bose mystery shopping has two elements. It begins with a phone call, in which the shopper calls to ask questions on specific products.

Shoppers indicate if the employee performed tasks such as answering questions clearly. Employees are also rated on their friendliness, helpfulness, etc., using an excellent-satisfactory-unsatisfactory scale.

Finally, shoppers have space to write about their interaction and support the ratings they gave the employee.

Mystery shoppers are instructed to complete the forms immediately, while everything is still fresh in their mind.

Each Bose shop receives a quarterly summary showing the staff’s overall performance. The district and store managers also get copies.

The stores use the data as a tool to bring awareness of where they’re doing well and where there are opportunities to do better. They can use it as a basis for a staff meeting, to look at things they can do to improve.

Depending on each store’s performance, the employee team, including managers, are awarded a customer satisfaction bonus.

Individual employees are also noted only for outstanding service; however, they are not singled out if they perform poorly.

Step 5: The analysis
Identify gaps in the service delivery and determine origin.

The information obtained from the shopping visit is matched to the pre-established objectives and standards to determine outstanding performance as well as any gaps that might exist.

Identifying the reasons for the gaps is the challenge for managers and employees participating in the program.

Results from mystery shopper visits should be analyzed with the history of previous shopper visits in mind, not as a one-off event.

To increase the reliability, the mystery shopper evaluation can be cross-checked with results from other sources such as customer contact cards, management reports, and customer satisfaction surveys.

Step 6: Action needed
Develop a reward and incentive scheme related to employee performance in mystery shopping programs.

Provide coaching to develop employees’ technical and behavioural skills. Work on the service delivery system if gaps exist because of poor design. Repeat the shopping experience.

The results of individual shopping visits should not only go to top management, but to the people directly involved, especially the contact employees.

Feedback must be relevant to those involved and be made in a positive manner. Once the program has been completed with a series of visits, and results have been tracked, recorded, and improvements made, a report of the mystery shopper study should be sent to top management.

Management must be informed of the value that has been obtained from the shopping programs (Morrall, 1994) and any changes needed to improve customer service.

Coaching is the key to dealing with service delivery problems arising from lack of training.

Mystery shopping evaluations provide information on what skills need to be developed. Employees can attend off-site training programs in small groups where they play out roles and work on service delivery.

In terms of motivation, the mystery shopping results can be used to reward those service teams that are performing well against the standards set.

Rewards can range from simple forms of recognition through to team league tables with team awards associated with sales performance in determining levels of financial reward.

Financial rewards and incentives are seen as becoming more common, particularly in financial services, travel agents, and shops.

In general, mystery shopping tends to lead to improvements in service quality. However, in the longer term, the novelty of being “shopped” can wear off, leaving personnel complacent about their service and lacking motivation to take steps to improve it further.

To overcome this, standards need to be constantly updated, and staff need to understand the benefits of mystery shopping.

Advantages and limitations of observational research
Observational data collection methods have several specific advantages and limitations worthy of discussion.

Advantages of observational data
? The researcher collects observed and actual behaviour patterns of marketing events rather than response data relating to consumers’ intentions or preferences.

? Reduction or elimination of recall error. The researcher gathers and records data as it is observed, whether the respondent’s recall of past experiences is accurate is not an issue.

? Observation methods allow researchers to obtain information from people who are unable to communicate in written or oral form. This can be an advantage when collecting data on young children, and it can also be an advantage in cross-cultural and cross-national research if the researcher has problems with the foreign languages.

? Normally, observational data can be collected in less time and at lower costs than through other types of collection procedures.

Limitations of observational data
Some limitations of observation are the limitations inherent in qualitative research in general.

It is difficult to generalize data. With direct observation, typically only small numbers of subjects are studied and usually under special circumstances, so their representativeness is a concern.

This factor, plus the subjective interpretation required to explain the observed behaviour, usually forces the researcher to treat the conclusions as tentative.

Inability to explain behaviours or events. The greatest drawback of all observational methods is the researcher’s inability to pry beneath the behaviour observed and to interrogate the person on motives, attitudes, and all of the other unseen aspects of why what was observed took place.

This can be especially problematic where observation is conducted in different cultural contexts by a researcher with little familiarity with these cultures.

The researcher may tend to interpret the data in terms of his or her own cultural self-reference (CSR).

It may not be possible to engage in observational methods in all countries. For example, in Saudi Arabia it will be nearly impossible to observe shopping behaviour of women, because they are not supposed to accept any kind of monitoring of their behaviour.

Observation research can be time-consuming if the behaviour occurs infrequently. For example, if the observer in a supermarket is waiting to observe people selecting a certain cereal brand.

The general limitations of observation methods are that motivations, attitudes, and other “internal” conditions cannot be observed.

Only when these feelings are relatively unimportant or readily inferred from the behaviour is it appropriate to use observational methods.

For example, facial expression might be used as an indicator of a child’s attitudes or preferences for various types of fruit drink flavours because children often react with conspicuous physical expressions.

But adults and even children usually conceal their reasons and true reactions in public, and this fact necessitates a direct questioning approach because observation alone cannot give a complete picture of why and how people act the way they do.

To Summ Up
Ideally, the subjects of observational research are unaware they are being studied. Because of this they react in a natural manner, giving the researcher insight into actual, not reported, behaviours.

As previously noted, observational research methods reduce the occurrence of recall error. The subjects are not asked what they remember about a certain action.

Instead, they are observed while engaged in the act. In some cases, observation may be the only way to obtain accurate information.

For instance, children who cannot yet verbally express their opinion of a new toy will do so by simply playing or not playing with the toy.

Retail marketers commonly gather marketing intelligence about competitors and about their own employees’ behaviours by hiring the services of mystery shoppers who pose as customers, but who are actually trained observers.

In some situations, data can be obtained with better accuracy and less cost by using observational methods as opposed to other means.

For example, counts of in-store traffic can often be made by observation more accurately and less expensively than by using surveys.

Such advantages of observational research methods should not be interpreted as meaning that this technique is always in competition with other approaches.

A resourceful researcher will use observation techniques to supplement and complement other techniques. When used in combination with other techniques, each approach can serve as a check on the result obtained by the other.

In which situation would you recommend using observational methods in cross-national market research?

What is the difference between mechanical and human observational methods?

How may electronic observations be used in supermarkets?

Describe a marketing research problem in which an observation method could be used in combination with another marketing research method.

How do you think mystery shopping can be used by:
? store chains managers;
? producers of brands sold in the store chains.

What do you see as being the main ethical problems of
? mystery shopping;
? analysis of people’s garbage?

Keywords: Observation, market research, consumer behaviour, Archives, data, surfers’ behaviour, unobtrusive methods, observational research, Traffic counters, Retail scanners, Pupilometer, Eye-tracking monitor, Electroencephalogram, Galvanic skin response, People meter, Tracking, mystery shopping,


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