Real ladies' man gets into the minds of shoppers
By JOAN VERDON E-mail: [email protected]
Copyright © 2005 North Jersey Media Group Inc. - published June 10, 2005
When shoppers speak, C. Britt Beemer listens. And listens. And listens.
He likes to say he's talked with more women than any man in America. But he's had help. His company, America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C., employs more than 100 "phoners" who chat with thousands of consumers each week about where they shopped and what they bought. The 26-year-old market research company has done research studies for clients such as General Electric, Kmart and Sealy mattress, and Beemer's track record of accurately predicting holiday sales has made him a frequent guest on business news shows and a much-quoted retail expert.
Beemer's company sets itself apart from the competition by asking open-ended questions, and letting the shopper do the talking, rather than answering a long list of "Do you agree, disagree or strongly disagree" questions. The "phoners" take copious hand-written notes (so as not to unnerve interviewees with the click of a keyboard) and Beemer reviews them to prepare his reports. Beemer, 53, was in New York this week for a round of business meetings, and he talked while The Record listened.
Q. It's interesting that you say you talk to more women than any other man. When you're doing a shopping survey, do you purposely seek out female shoppers, or is it random?
It depends. Some surveys, we force them to be 50 percent men and 50 percent women. But whenever we do a survey where we want to talk to the chief decision maker in the house, it will be anywhere between two-thirds women to 80 percent women, depending on the category.
Q. Is it harder to get your male survey respondents to open up and talk about shopping?
Men answer the questions very differently than the women do.
Men don't hate shopping. Men hate inefficient shopping. When they can go to a store that makes shopping efficient, they love it. If you had a man go into a store, and there were five people in line, he'd be antsy and want to beat up somebody. ... When they get that buying decision made, they want to leave. And not many men want to take the time to browse. ... Most of them are almost obsessed by how quickly they can get in and out of a store.
Q. So how do you get them to talk about shopping? I find men always say, "I don't shop."
You know, I don't have a hard time getting people to talk. ... Some of the major firms - they have a hard time keeping a phoner for six months. My average phoner has worked for me for almost six years. I've got 10 phoners who've worked for me for over 15 years. This is a profession for them.
There are certain tricks to the trade. If you want to call somebody on Long Island and want them to talk to you, put phoners on the surveys that have great Southern accents. People in Northern markets kind of chuckle when somebody from the South calls them.
Q. But how do you get somebody to participate in the survey and not say, "I don't have time for this"?
Well, I'm a behavioral researcher, and there aren't many of us left. The difference between behavioral research and attitude and opinion research is this: An attitude and opinion researcher would ask, 'Which of the following is most important to you?' and read you a list of five to seven items. A behavioral researcher would say, 'What's most important to you?' and then he would shut up and let you talk. My goal is for my people to be on the phone 20 percent of the time and to be listening to you 80 percent of the time. Most studies are the exact opposite.
Q. So what's tops on shoppers' minds these days?
I would say three things. Number one, if shoppers don't [like what they see], they'll buy anyway, but it will be at a bigger discount. And two, there's a lot of frustration with shoppers in different age groups trying to find stores that fit their lifestyle. ... America doesn't need another new retail store, but it needs another new store that does it right. There's too many stores that just don't do it right. And three, 74 percent of consumers say that all stores look alike.
Q. Where's your favorite place to shop?
Everywhere. ... I love to shop, personally. I'm the ultimate shopper. When my wife and I got married in Hong Kong, 15-16 years ago, we got married, then we went shopping that night. At a night market. So I'm really not normal.
Spotlight on Retailing appears every Friday in The Record.