Research in the round

Package design research continues to be a bit complicated, and I am not sure it has gotten any less so in the last few years, but there is some interesting technology, both high and low, being introduced that takes research beyond the dreaded focus group room or the sterility of the eye tracking lab.

My last post described the more flexible and more organic retail spaces that are beginning to evolve as a result of both the retailer’s quest for innovation and the consumer’s interest in a less formal and less structured shopping experience. This got me wondering how the traditional tools of package design research might be dealing with this less predictable environment.

This is important because the final decisions about the success or failure of a package are made by the consumer at the shelf, and many of the existing research tools were developed in a time when the venue for this decision was straight rows of horizontal shelves, lined up in a straight aisle, organized in a rigid grid to maximize space utilization.

Research tools have typically dealt with a flat 2-dimensional field of view that was common with these straight rows of shelves. If the retail stores are changing is the research industry finding ways to accommodate and measure response in an increasingly complex environment? A quick survey seems to indicate that the answer is maybe.

KimberlyClarkOne example of a hi-tech approach is the Kimberly Clark facility they call their Innovation Design Studio. It is apparently a virtual reality center that has the capability of creating full-sized replicas of retail spaces. Consumers can view mock shelves and actually feel as if they have become part of the virtual retail environments, and make purchase decisions within this virtual world. Sounds interesting, and intuitively seems better than a static conference room or research lab, and certainly can be tailored to simulate the new more organic retail spaces, but I have no first hand experience with this type of facility, so its hard to judge how virtual the results might be.

A low-tech approach is a represented by a client facility I have visited. The client will remain nameless, but like Kimberly Clark it is a major global consumer products company. The research facility is housed in an unidentified building, in a nondescript office/industrial complex, outside a medium sized city. As you walk into the building your first impression is of a completely stocked, rather large food store, housed completely within a warehouse-like space. Nothing virtual about it.

Every move of the consumers who enter is followed both live through mirrored windows above the aisles or through cameras located in key locations throughout the facility. I was darned impressed and think the results the client was able to achieve were measurably better than other more limited facilities I have seen.

And what I like most is that while this is clearly a simulated shopping experience, the consumer is viewing real 3-D package comps, on a real shelf, in a close to real shopping environment. An environment that can be built to accommodate almost any new layout approach envisioned by retail store planners.

In this context the virtual route seems, obviously, a bit removed from reality. Consumers are in a virtual space, viewing virtual shelf sets of virtual packages, and making virtual decisions.

It would be interesting to know how the overall cost of these two facilities compares. Certainly both are significant investments. All things being equal I would vote for the near real store vs. the virtual simulation.


A few links to info on the Kimberly Clark Facility can be found here, and here, and here.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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