I love TV shows like the BBC’s Mary Portas: Secret Shopper and Channel 4’s Undercover Boss – they really open up the eyes of senior management to what’s happening on the frontline of a business. So, when Hallam Students’ Union approached us to help improve their commercial offer (licensed bar, shop and café) I was pleased they were keen to include some ethnographic research alongside the traditional online survey and focus groups, to really get to grips with their customers’ experiences.
Developed from the academic discipline of cultural anthropology, ethnography is the study of people in their natural environment. It is used more and more by market researchers because it helps us to get to the bottom of the way people behave, not just what they say. At Hallam this meant our team spending time eating, drinking browsing and buying alongside students in the Union building and at key competitor venues.
At the debrief we had all the facts and figures from the survey, so we knew the average student buys two sandwiches a week and spends £2.50 on them. But we were also able to talk to them about the way students choose between competing offers, for example where they go for a drink, and what it feels like to be a customer in their premises compared to their competitors. Atmosphere, identity and quality matter to students just as much as price, and ethnography is a powerful way of getting under the skin of these issues.