Research from the Rafters

It’s early in the morning, 7:30am, before the Denver flagship store opens. Allan is on a ladder, while I try to use our action camera’s mobile app to determine whether he has an angle that captures the store floor. We’re both bleary eyed, maybe ate one too many chili dogs the night before at Sam’s No. 3 as we explored our downtown surroundings.

Allan Kempson, REI’s Manager of Customer Experience, and I are here in our Denver flagship store. We’re here to study snow and ski gear: how it’s laid out in our store, what customers are looking for, and why they’re coming in. We’re slowly ramping up for two 7-hour days of observing, interviewing, and recording — from the time the store opens to the hubbub of a crowded Friday and Saturday afternoon. As we progress through a full day, we’ll observe and try to understand how our customers interact within the store and what the employees think and do when they’re trying to help the customer. After gathering this qualitative data, we then synthesize the data and develop insights, which influence our design and visual merchandising efforts in our stores’ layouts. Our approach to gathering this data is important because it helps our co-op understand not only what is going on in the stores, but also why our customers behave the way that they do. This informs how we improve our in-store customer experiences even more.

We join the manager’s huddle with our store employees, about 15 min. before the doors open. The staff is large, at least 40–50 folks — friendly, energized and much more awake than we are. We hang out in the huddle to make sure we communicate what we’re here to accomplish so they can become comfortable with us in the store for the next 2 days.

Gear for in-store observations

Our gear list was extensive, but thanks to Allan’s expertise with in-store observations, we were fully prepared.

  • 4–5 GoPros on Joby tripods wrapped around rafter beams above the store floor. We use the timelapse footage to observe crowd flow through specific departments
  • 1 GoPro in hand to record interviews with customers
  • Battery packs attached to cameras in the sky to keep them running longer than their given battery life
    *iPod Touch and auxiliary mic to record audio of customer interviews. We attach this to the interviewer, in case the GoPro audio is inaudible
  • Test plan, small field notebook, pen, nametags — no space for wieldy clipboards and more discreet
    *Store gift cards for customers as a thank you for their time
  • Snacks to keep us energized through the day

This grouping of items is specifically geared towards contextual inquiry and observational research. If you’re interested in creating your own research kit, we strongly suggest that it should be adapted to the intended goals of your research with cost, scope, and research effectiveness in mind.
GoPro’s, battery packs, iPod, adapters, cords, cords, cords

Live intercepts in retail spaces

Throughout the course of our visit, we floated between aisles of skis, snowboards, and ski boots. When we identified a worthy or intriguing research participant, we approached them together. Our main goal was to avoid being intrusive while balancing the rapport we must quickly build with a potential participant.

There is always a little awkwardness when approaching a customer. It’s never easy no matter how many times one facilitates user research, but it’s great to embrace it!

Denver flagship store

Tips for live intercepts in retail stores:

  • Introduce yourself and your colleague/assistant at the same time
  • Mention incentive ($$) very early in your introduction…give people a compelling reason to listen to you for at least 3 seconds
  • Say what you’re here to do, and what your role is
  • Ask if it’s okay to record before starting the recording
  • Inform customer of the amount of time the interview is expected to last

Sometimes, if we observed a really engaged customer that would be really interesting to talk to or was browsing the shelves in an intriguing way, we approached the customer and gave them gift cards upfront with the promise of returning to us after they completed their purchases. I was initially skeptical about this tactic, but no one has walked away yet!

Bill’s expert boot fit

Other pockets of simultaneous research

We improvised in our downtime. During this visit, I needed to test an upcoming feature of our internal app used by store employees. Armed with my question list, pocket notebook, and GoPro, I took a few moments to rapidly usability test my app’s prototype with store employees. I also went through a complete ski boot fit with one of our fantastic ski boot experts, Bill (and I do mean truly fantastic!). To capture this from the first person perspective, we attached a GoPro to a lanyard, easily simulating a customer’s experience of browsing and shopping for ski boots. As they say, dogfooding!

The insights that we developed after this store visit and another in Salt Lake City directly influenced our design and visual merchandising for the next winter season. Time and time again, learning directly from our customers and employees proves to be more valuable than we imagine.