Retail anthropology for markets

Many years ago, a researcher named William (Holly) Whyte started studying the flow of people in public spaces, leading to classic books on the subject, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980) and City: Rediscovering the Center (1988) one of my perennial favorites. His Street Life Project attracted research assistants including Fred Kent who went on to found  Projects for Public Spaces (PPS),  which does great work all over the world on public space community design and has an experienced staff working with great success with shed market or market district markets.

Another early follower of Whyte’s work was Paco Underhill. In 1974 he attended what he calls a transformative lecture on Whyte at Columbia University. Inspired, Underhill conducted a street-mall study that he later showed to Fred Kent and Robert Cook, who were in the process of forming PPS. Underhill became one of their first staff members and then in 1979, founded his own consulting company, Envirosell which works with retail clients.

Why should markets learn about retail anthropology?

Shopper purchasing is changing, especially for place-based and especially for food purchases. Knowing your shoppers and what they want and how they search for it is at the core of market’s primary mission of building economic power for its vendors and community.

More markets are searching for permanent or semi-permanent locations for their flagship markets and need to know how to choose the best from a retail standpoint and how to design it too.

The pressures from chain stores eagerly co-opting the “local” and short-chain language of our movement means markets need to know how to analyze what is happening around them and how to respond.

Lastly, as market vendors diversify into more outlets to sell their items, they will need market leaders who can assist them in selecting those outlets and even in negotiating or “curating” those other transactions as they do with the family table shopper at our markets now.

Studying the work of these two companies is the easiest way into the retail anthropology sector as it is so closely aligned with Whyte’s “human-centered” framework.

From an interview with Underhill:

How do you conduct your research?
We generally use a combination of three tools. The first is observation. We have a group of approximately 60 people who spend their weekends in stores, watching how people shop. They function like anthropological researchers. We use the same techniques that sociologists might use at the marketplace in Papua, New Guinea, only we’re using it at the local Pick ‘n Pay. Our job is to look at, for example, the number of people who walk past a store in a shopping mall—the number of people who look, how long they look, whether they stop, and whether they enter. We then take a customer as they’re walking in the door and, very discreetly, observe them go through their shopping process.

Do you videotape them?
Yes. The second tool is that we will often install a series of small video cameras. We shoot anywhere from 50 to 70 hours of some of the most profoundly boring tape you’ve ever seen. But what we look at is the following: If someone pulls an item off the shelf, how do they physically handle it? What pieces of the package are being read? Do they put it back in the right place? The third tool we use is some form of interview. We ask a bit of demographic information—“How often do you shop?”—but we’re not collecting phone numbers. Our focus is on tribal issues. I’m not interested in what Mrs. Smith does. I’m focused on what Mrs. Smith does in contrast to what Mrs. Gomez does.

Observation and interview. Sounds a lot like how research is conducted at markets doesn’t it?

Here is a great example of how markets can use the second tool, video. The Athens Farmers Market in Athens Ohio affixed an iPhone to a pole overlooking the market on one fine Saturday morning:

Notice all of the data one can get from this one short video. Set up issues, weather, shopper density, egress issues (entering and exiting), the illustration of the 100% effect*,  shopper activity at anchor vendor tables, the length of time in the market, and market break down among others.

This is also helpful for those markets searching for a new location. If you can find a pole to tape an old iPod or iPhone far up and video the hours that the market would be set up there, think of what you might learn about the best way to design the space or even which direction to orient the market.

This is the kind of sensible and appropriate data collection that we include and we keep adding to in Farmers Market Metrics, now available to all farmers markets members of Farmer Market Coalition for a small subscription fee to use all of its many features.

So don’t think that every data collection process has to include a team of collectors and a bunch of paper. By using the technology you have in your hand, detailed and visual data is available for your leadership to make better decisions about the market right now. And methods designed by the experts in studying human movement in retail and public spaces available to you.

* Holly Whyte term took this real-estate term used for the busiest street corner to describe how people move to the busiest area of the walkway when having an impromptu meet up chat or when deciding where to walk: “We were testing hypotheses on-camera, most of which blew up in my face. One of my hypotheses was when people meet on the street and say, “Hi, how are you doing?” “Long time no see,” and that sort of thing, they would move into that foot of space along a building front. Quite the opposite. With very good exceptions they move into the center of traffic, what I call the 100% location. It’s crowded, but it’s also the place of maximum choice. They don’t get off in a corner somewhere; they don’t let themselves get trapped.”

“Up to seven people per foot of walkway a minute is a nice bustle” (Holly Whyte)

 

 

Next post: Common layout choices for markets.

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