In-aisle scanners, virtual mannequins, smart dressing rooms. All around, we see retailers embrace new technologies to meet customer needs. How did research help develop those leading-edge products and programs? Do retailers still walk respondents down the aisle one-by-one for shop-alongs?

Not so much. OK, not all retailers are building drones (yet!), but the top tier use future-forward techniques to understand customers. Mobile methodologies are no longer considered grad-level research design; they are part of omnichannel 101.

Retail researchers seem to have decided that progressive research breeds aggressive customer understanding. Here are five reasons in-the-moment research checks out:

Stores have no real boundaries

For shoppers, omni-channel means getting what they want, when they want it, in the most convenient way possible — whatever that means for them.

For retailers, the challenge is understanding whatever that means.

It’s not about taking a “technology first” approach. What’s at stake is understanding the total customer experience — including their moments without touch screens or keyboards. It involves documenting and analyzing behaviors both offline and online. It means mapping a purchase journey that has become intensely individual and complicated.

Mobile video feedback enables retailers to join shoppers on their mental, physical and emotional journeys. Qualitative insights and quantitative data from mobile studies are the building blocks of understanding the retail customer’s life experience — from inspiration on the road, to discovery on the sofa, to browsing on the mobile device and in-store moments of truth.

Competition isn’t the store down the road.

It’s the e-commerce companies. It’s some of the best apps in the world. It’s the Amazon behemoth.

When competition tightens in any industry, the winners know their customers best. Retailers need more than scanner stats and user testing data. Decision makers need a deep understanding of how people buy from their competitors.

Qualitative mobile tools are giving researchers those insights with outrageous speed. It takes only one week — from the kick-off to delivery of a full report with video reels — for a mass merchandiser to field a nationwide competitive purchase study of grocery staples, and then launch a full-day product workshop to brainstorm applications of the insights.

Less time browsing, more time buying

When Target learned that 75 percent of guests start their shopping journey on smartphones, the retail leader declared mobile to be the new “front door to the store.” (5 Ways Consumers Connect to Stores With Mobile Shopping, Google Micro-Moments, 2/16).

Traditional research is not equipped to capture the behaviors, thoughts and decision-making processes that begin well before customers walk into a store. Mobile research, on the other hand, is giving retailers a porthole into people’s living rooms, their cars, and their minds, whether they are thinking about dogs and dog food or friends and fashion. And it’s all happening without strapping an ethnographer to every customer’s back.

Retail researchers use mobile because they can afford to see those critical moments in real-time, with depth and at scale. And they can’t afford not to.

Shop-alongs are less authentic, now that shopping is so complex

“Tell me what you would do, if you were shopping.”

Researchers have long known that shop-alongs don’t provide enough reliable data. In-store intercepts require a lot of resources and time. So retailers are now keying into the mobile “in-the-moment” research tools.

Finally, we can observe shoppers as they just do things when and how they normally would. Customers’ own recordings show them walking around the store and talking about what they’re doing, capturing and sharing actual moments when they are purchasing. They offer some commentary on what they see and think, and why — without the researcher interference of a shop-along.

It’s powerful to document a genuine purchase. Everything else is just hypothetical scenarios, asking shoppers to “pretend you’re trying to buy this.” And the rest is too expensive and time consuming to do at scale.

Gone are the days of giant, multi-month projects in field

The new reality demands lean, flexible research. Speed for mobile research is unmatchable: One chain wanted to know how, when and why 100 people purchased potato chips over the weekend. So they asked 100 people on a Friday and had their answer on Monday.

Some mobile research tools enable retailers to target shoppers regionally — down to a specific metro area, and even narrower. Product teams are especially interested in balancing that regional focus with a broader approach, so they can compare and contrast. This is especially powerful when projects are fielded over time.

The number of ways you can use mobile research is endless, making it an easy tool to distribute corporate wide. It’s a major win to tell your internal teams: “this is what we can do with mobile moments, and this is how quickly it can happen.”

Here are a few unexpected ways retailers we know have explored and exploited the versatility, adaptability, and efficiency of mobile research tools:

  • private product development: build a better hammer with co-creation and ideation
  • customer service compliance: get context, steps taken, what’s working and what isn’t
  • journey map: track hundreds of customer moments — offline and across channels — to identify critical product changes
  • usability: how does this actually work in the wild? It’s not traditional usability. It’s better.