Traditional Shop-Alongs with a Twist

The research environment of a shop-along is often difficult to control, making on-site improvisation and creativity the norm rather than the exception. To follow are several shop-along strategies some of which are traditional and tried; others offer a twist.

The research environment of a shop-along is often difficult to control, making on-site improvisation and creativity the norm rather than the exception. To follow are several shop-along strategies some of which are traditional and tried; others offer a twist.



Shop-along interviewing is a component of on-site research or in-situ research, which encompasses both observational research and individual depth interviewing.  It is conducted with respondents in a retail/point-of-sale (POS) setting including any venue that sells goods and services, excluding the online space.  For the sake of simplicity in this article, I will refer to on-site research as “shop-alongs.”

Shop-alongs are not considered “traditional research;” as such, the rule book is fairly concise and ever-evolving. The research environment is often difficult to control,  making on-site improvisation and creativity the norm rather than the exception.  To follow are several shop-along strategies some of which are traditional and tried; others offer a twist.

Note: This article relates to assisted shop-alongs, where the moderator observes and interviews the respondent, not to mobile shop-alongs, where the respondent captures the shopping experience individually using a mobile application.



Use shop-alongs when the research seeks to fully understand the behavior and attitudes that influence the consumer’s purchase decision at the time of purchase.  This methodology is useful in identifying specific influencers, diagnosing specific barriers, or uncovering opportunities during the critical purchase-decision process. 

Shop-alongs are also used when the product cannot be feasibly separated from its retail environment or when the product is highly influenced by its environment; meaning, product placement is one with the elements surrounding it.  For example, I conducted a pizza taste test for a restaurant company at several of their stores; the pizza could not be prepared at a focus-group facility.  Furthermore, consumer insights mean much more when measured in the actual restaurant environment complete with all the potential influencers: clean tables, loud music, staff interaction, etc.

In a nutshell, shop-alongs are the appropriate methodology to gather insights when the objective is to:        

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of package design, shelf design, or visual merchandising.
  • Check ease of store navigation, shopability, or findability.
  • Observe the influence of the retail environment on the purchase decision.
  • Understand the level of consumer engagement with products.




The study’s recruiting method (i.e., in advance via on-site intercepts) is generally driven by the presence or absence of respondent quotas.  Pre-recruiting is recommended when specific consumer segments must be represented to meet study objectives, i.e., lapsed and non-customers.  When quotas are loose or not required, on-site recruiting allows a very natural shopping environment, and respondents are less likely to develop pre-conceived notions about their part in the study.

The decision to recruit respondents in singles vs. pairs should be driven by the typical scenario for the research venue.  For on-site recruiting, working with willing, qualified pairs of respondents can make the shop-along especially rich and dynamic.  However, be prepared to compensate both respondents and allow additional time for the interview.

Try this: Pre-recruit specific segments that are unlikely to arrive at the research location spontaneously, i.e., competitor-customers.  On-site recruit all other respondents.  Or, pre-recruit all respondents and supplement any no-shows with on-site recruits.  Be prepared to screen and compensate respondents on-site. 



Due to the spontaneous nature of shop-alongs, creativity is required in audio- or videotaping respondents in support of the study’s back-end analysis. Furthermore, visual recordings of consumer actions are often vital to meeting research objectives.  For best results, moderators should work with a separate, designated camera operator.  Simple devices such as a smart phone or hand-held video cam are preferred because they are subtle and non-threatening.

Because it’s also important to capture key respondent comments for later analysis, you need an organized system to log “key moments” during each interview.

Try this: Use a LiveScribe pen to easily note key respondent insights during interviews.  When analyzing data, it is simple to recall the actual verbatim or note the time stamp on your pen to pinpoint video editing.  (For more information about this technology, visit   

Try this: Consider using mobile eye-tracking to capture pure behavior in terms of what consumers see and notice during the shopping experience.  Eye-tracking is especially relevant for testing concepts of new packaging, promotional signage, shelf design, and store layout.  Respondents are equipped with  special eye glasses designed to record eye movement and fixation as they shop.  The resulting output may include video recordings with gaze path and fixation heat maps to combine with depth interview findings.  (For more information, search “mobile eye-tracking” online.)

Note: Like any interview, shop-alongs require each respondent’s permission to be audio and videotaped, including agreement to wear eye-tracking devices.  Shop-alongs also require a company’s permission to videotape interviews in each store.

Observation vs. Interview:

Determining the amount of observation vs. interviewing in a shop-along depends largely on research objectives.  Most shop-along studies require observation to capture natural, uninhibited shopping behavior combined with interviewing to understand the perceptions and motivations behind the behavior.  Studies focused on store navigation, shopability, and findability will naturally emphasize observation.  Ideally, all shop-alongs involve some degree of “free shopping”—the earlier in the interview, the fresher the perspective.  A key role of the moderator is to allow the respondent to engage in shopping once prompted or given an assigned task.  In other words, zip your lip and endure the silence, which is filled with the respondent’s valuable mental strategizing.

Try this: Greet respondents at the front of the store and capture first impressions.  Observe the respondent’s shopping exercise and then probe, or ask the respondent to “think aloud” during the shopping exercise.  I prefer a combination approach as some respondents are better at thinking aloud than others. 

Consider the deliverable when designing the interview portion of shop-alongs.  Your client will probably ask for supporting video clips and verbatims—a challenging job for the researcher made easier by designing your shop-along plan to foster consistency across interviews.

Try this: Ask all respondents the same question at approximately the same point in each interview.  For example, asked at the beginning of the shop-along: “When you first walked into the store, what grabbed your attention?”  You will have a robust sample of responses, and compiling a video montage on the back-end will be relatively simple.


As long as you are on-site at your client’s retail establishment, there are “extras” beyond the research objectives that you can provide your client.  Try these, as appropriate:

  • Front row seat:  Invite your client’s research team member to operate the video camera. This person can observe the research close-up and ask questions not covered by the moderator.   It also trims the budget by reducing the need for an assistant.
  • PR twist: Be prepared to explain what you are doing to on-lookers and other customers in the store who are intrigued by your video camera.  With the client’s permission, leverage the opportunity to hand out coupons and take customers’ contact information for future research.  In one study, I used table tents to designate the research area.  Customers interested in participating in future studies were given coupons and told about the store’s loyalty program.
  • Sales boost: When possible, use store gift cards as the respondent incentive.  The value should be comparable to a cash incentive and flexible enough to redeem at any location – even online.  Clients generally appreciate the bounce-back benefit.


Kelly Heatly is a member of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) and principal of Heatly Custom Research LLC, specializing in qualitative research.  With over 18 years of marketing research experience, she conducts on-site retail research, building on a foundation of mystery shopping and quantitative research. You can reach Kelly at

QRCA is celebrating 30 years of leadership in Qualitative Research, 1983-2013.

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