Researchers Must Guard Against Assumptions

March 26, 2024

By Russ Onish, President, Vista Grande

Based on our collective experience conducting thousands of market research studies worldwide for consumer goods companies in all shapes and sizes, we want to call to your attention three biases we occasionally encounter that we recommend you avoid. 

Here are three biases to avoid:

  • Getting trapped in your bubble.
  • Perpetuating potentially sexist stereotypes.
  • Disrespecting your elders.

Here’s a closer look at each:

1. Don’t get mentally trapped in your bubble.

Most Americans live in a bubble of our own making. Sociologists think it’s deeply baked into human nature. Our spouses, friends, neighbors, and colleagues are disproportionately likely to resemble us politically, socio-economically, ethnically, etc. Unfortunately, things have worsened as social media algorithms are tuned to feed us content targeted to us and provoke strong negative emotions toward those different from us.

Most working in white-collar jobs at CPG companies likely make dependable salaries, often with health and retirement benefits, and enjoy a good standard of living. Unfortunately, this is not the norm for many Americans, according to recent data. One-third of Americans describe themselves as either financially struggling to get by or in a state of crisis; the same proportion live paycheck to paycheck without savings. About half of Americans claim that anxiety over financial issues has negatively impacted their mental health.

My point is simply this: we practitioners of shopper research are not a representative sample of the population we seek to understand. Therefore, we need to check our inherent biases and be careful not to project our experiences and worldviews onto others who don’t share them. I’ve met people in headquarters roles who have never been to a dollar-channel store, or who do not know store brands. I’ve also seen many analyses that place too much emphasis on the concerns of the affluent and not nearly enough on the concerns of the financially fragile.

Recommendation: To be a better researcher, get out of your bubble. Intentionally schedule time to drive to different neighborhoods, unlike yours, and go shopping at retailers you ordinarily wouldn’t choose. Try shopping on a strict budget and experiencing all the opportunities to save money. Carry this learning over to when you write survey questionnaires by putting yourself in others’ shoes. When analyzing data, be careful not to make your issues the focus of general data interpretation.

2. Don’t perpetuate sexist or potentially sexist stereotypes.

I frequently encounter research briefs, methodologies, and analyses woefully out of step with the times. I vividly remember a meeting where a marketing director asserted that everyone knows 70% of grocery shoppers are women (which is categorically false; compelling facts support 50%). I’ve witnessed a manufacturer of men’s personal care products conduct “shopper research” using a methodology based entirely on focus groups among moms (presumably, husbands rely on their wives to choose their deodorant).

Many people in our industry use the pronoun “she” when referring generically to shoppers, or they assert that their retailer’s target shopper is a 25-45-year-old woman with children, regardless of the facts. Some clients are unsatisfied if our screener includes shoppers of a given category; instead, they want to ensure that the shopper is the decision maker (i.e., the man may purchase products, but the woman tells him what he must buy).

I received a recent brief from a sophisticated multinational corporation that wanted to get insights on three groups: business shoppers, Hispanic shoppers, and moms. The brief insinuated that this was a mutually exclusive and exhaustive categorization. Companies that purchase or deliver segmentation studies routinely assign women’s pictures and female names to their segments.

Recommendation: To be a better researcher, avoid dated and potentially sexist stereotypes. Don’t set your quotas or targets for research which pre-supposes a particular societal structure. Not only are these stereotypes going to compromise the validity of your research, but they may cause your organization to perpetuate flawed assumptions in your marketing efforts, alienating people who would otherwise be interested in your products.

3. Don’t disrespect your elders.

Our industry is motivated to understand the young. Some attention to the differences among age cohorts is understandable as companies want to distinguish longitudinal cohort effects from life-stage effects, and they want to appeal to “up and coming” shoppers and consumers.

However, researchers often lose sight of the pertinent facts and sabotage their own efforts through poor research design to support their colleagues’ focus on younger groups such as Millennials.

Nearly half the market research briefs we receive specify an age range for custom research with a high-end somewhere between 45 to 65 years old. I have pushed back forcefully whenever we are requested to exclude older adults. This usually leads to negotiation around the margins, but these clients rarely agree to allow people over 65 to take our surveys. Do they realize we would be excluding many Fortune 500 CEOs, a majority of U.S. senators, 4-of-9 Supreme Court justices — and, of course, the presidential candidates of the leading parties?

If older Americans are qualified to hold the most mentally demanding jobs in the world, how could they not be capable of taking a short survey on grocery shopping? If they account for most consumer spending, why don’t we care what they want to buy?

Even if you were cynical enough to answer those questions in an exclusionary way, I would appeal to you from a straightforward research perspective. If you want to understand what makes Millennials so special, then you better have something to compare them to. Without comparisons to older adults in your research design, you will be limited in what you learn. Benchmarks, comparisons, and indices benefit everything in shopper research interpretation.

Recommendation: To be a better researcher, don’t disrespect your elders. There is more short-term economic opportunity for your brand, category, or retail store to better appeal to older shoppers than it does today, even compared to Millennials or Generation Z. If you want to disregard the numbers based on population, buying power, and wealth and focus on Millennials for other reasons, then make sure you have different age cohorts by which to compare them.

About Vista Grande:
Vista Grande is an innovative shopper insights and category management firm that has disrupted traditional research methods with contemporary solutions that holistically integrate segmentation, the path to purchase, and decision trees. Russ Onish, who founded Vista Grande in 2017 and is its president, resides in Toronto, Canada.