Shopper research is a cornerstone of robust research programs for brands that seek to engage customers with products in store, or for retailers vying to provide experiences that will keep customers happy and spending money in their stores.

Shopper research is often performed in live or mock retail environments, where researchers can view shoppers’ behavior as they perform specific tasks, many times using eye tracking to capture a first-hand account of a shopper’s viewpoint, attention, and behavior. Both mock and live stores present challenges and offer advantages for understanding shopper behavior.

Testing In Live Stores

Testing in a live store is the optimal environment for understanding actual shopper behavior in the natural environment. In live stores, shoppers who planned to shop that day can be intercepted, asked to participate, and monitored, using eye-tracking tools. Oftentimes, products they select are those they actually buy. That being said, performing a shopper exercise, or wearing eye-tracking glasses, can feel unnatural.

Additionally, live stores create challenges for researchers who need to control the environment. Stock on shelves might be low, other shoppers can interfere, and generally live stores are more hectic than a controlled environment. Here are some suggestions to help create an authentic shopping experience in a live store.

  1. Remind shoppers that you are looking to understand their natural behavior. Tell them not to take any more or less time than they normally would while shopping the store and select only the items they would buy if they were not participating in a market research study. Often times, respondents participate in research with what they think is wanted of them by the researchers , rather than what researchers really want – which is to understand their natural behavior.
  2. Leave the shopper alone! Especially while the shopper is wearing eye-tracking glasses, it’s unnecessary and disruptive to shadow the respondent as they perform their natural shop or shopping exercise in the live store. Let the eye-tracker do its work recording the shoppers’ experience. This allows the respondent to act more naturally, forget that they are participating in a research study, and behave just as they normally would. If you have questions pertaining to their attention or shopping experience, wait until they admit to having finished their shop. Unlike with shop-a-longs, moderators always want to wait until a natural shop is over before asking questions because moderator questions may influence the attention of the shopper. Instead, review the eye tracking video with the respondent after they have finished their shop and ask them what they were thinking during the review.
  3. Give specific instructions while allowing for a shopper’s own whims. If the shop is mission based (think: find an anti-cavity toothpaste) or more general (think: shop for a cereal product), make sure to give the respondent some flexibility while being clear about your expectations for them. If the respondent is expected to select an item or items for purchase, tell them to do so. Try not to limit their shop time, but remind them that they should take no longer shopping while doing a research study than they would if they were not.

Testing In Mock Stores

Mock stores have their advantages in terms of privacy and control. In mock or concept stores, researchers test concept packaging or products in a realistic environment without worrying about competitors or customer reactions before the concept is fully rendered and ready for market. Mock stores also give researchers control over store set up; ensuring customers do not disturb planograms, and ensure that other customers do not affect the respondents’ shop. Additionally, mock stores are more flexible. Different layouts, fixtures, and product configurations can be tested without worry that stock will dwindle. However, a mock store takes a leap of faith on the part of the respondent to shop as they would in a live retail environment. Here are some tips to ensure the experience is authentic as possible:

  1. It’s all the in the details. When designing a mock store or mock shelf, keep the details as close to a real store as possible. Consider adding marketing materials to the store, use real world planograms to plan out shelf sets and don’t forget realistic price tags. If testing food products, use realistic coolers or fixtures that would be present in a live store. Consider creating an authentic checkout experience as well, hiring someone to work a checkout counter or desk.
  2. Paint a picture for your respondents’ shop. In the shopper instructions, ask them to imagine they are in a specific type of store with a specific task in mind. An example of this would be, “Please imagine that you ran out of dish soap and you stopped into a big box store like Target or Wal-Mart to pick up a replacement. Please pick whatever product or products you normally would, while shopping for dish soap products in that type of store.” This eases the respondent into the shopping exercise and helps create an authentic mindset, which will, in turn, create for more authentic behavior.
  3. Give the respondent any pertinent information up front, so they do not have to stop and ask questions during their shop, especially if the methodology is using eye tracking. In many mock shops, concept product packaging may be devoid of actual products or prices may be slightly different than expected. Let the respondent know to treat empty packages as if they were the actual product and that prices would be more similar to what they would see in a typical store.


Regardless of the type of shopper research being done as part of a holistic research program, creating an authentic in-store experience is the best way to understand how real shoppers behave , engage and interact with products. Following the tips laid out above will help to create a successful research study in a live or mock store environment.