Retail Ethnography for Customer Insights

Helping you to understand consumer motivations, retail ethnography is the study of shopper behaviour to gain customer insights. Ethnography is the scientific categorisation of groups of people and their mutual customs, differences and habits.

It is a primarily a qualitative research discipline, branching from sociology and anthropology.

Retail ethnography for customer insights

In the context of retail, ethnographic research is the investigation of shopping habits and behaviours, in order to better understand your customers.

This type of research can offer very different and often more interesting results from shopper surveys. They tend to look at consumer behaviour in the context of real life buying situations. This is rather than asking shoppers what they do in those situations.

The latter gives the researcher opinions, incomplete data and perhaps an idealistic view from the shopper about how they ‘would’ behave, rather than a view of how he or she actually ‘does’ behave. The difference in results between retail surveys and ethnographic research is perhaps due to the fact that shoppers do not realise how much emotion plays a part in their interaction with brands.

Ethnographic research can help a company to understand how shoppers interact with their brand in store and at home, and can offer insights that can inform packaging design and intuitiveness, store placement of products, graphic design, promotional campaigns and more.


How to Conduct Customer Ethnography

Retail customer ethnography is a qualitative research method that involves the systematic observation, description, and analysis of shoppers’ behavior and experiences in commercial environments. This approach helps businesses understand how customers interact with their products, services, and retail spaces, enabling them to make informed decisions about store design, product placement, customer service, and marketing strategies.

Here’s a step by step guide on how to conduct customer ethnography:


1. Define Your Objectives

Before embarking on a retail ethnography study, clearly define what you aim to learn. Objectives may include understanding shopping behaviors, identifying patterns in customer movement within the store, evaluating the effectiveness of displays and signage, or gauging customer reactions to product assortments.


2. Plan Your Study

  • Choose the Location(s): Decide on the retail environments where the study will be conducted. This could be a single store or multiple locations.
  • Select the Methodology: Determine whether you will conduct observations, interviews, or a combination of both. Consider the use of technology, such as video recording or tracking devices, to supplement observations.
  • Obtain Permissions: If necessary, get approval from store management and ensure that your study complies with privacy laws and ethical guidelines.


3. Conduct Observations

  • Be Discreet: Observe customers without interfering with their shopping experience. Dress appropriately and use unobtrusive methods to take notes or record data.
  • Use a Structured Approach: Develop a checklist or coding scheme to systematically record behaviors, interactions, and environmental factors.
  • Capture the Context: Note the physical layout, signage, product placement, and any promotional materials, as these can influence customer behavior.


4. Engage with Shoppers

  • Conduct Interviews: Approach customers for interviews either during or after their shopping experience. Prepare open-ended questions that encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Ethical Considerations: Ensure participants know they are part of a study and have the option to opt-out. Respect their privacy and confidentiality.


5. Analyse the Data

  • Identify Patterns: Look for recurring behaviors, preferences, and pain points among the shoppers. Analyze how different aspects of the retail environment influence customer decisions.
  • Use Visual Aids: Create maps or flowcharts to visualise customer movement and interaction patterns within the store.
  • Incorporate Quantitative Data: If available, integrate sales data, foot traffic counts, or other quantitative measures to complement your observations.


6. Report Findings and Recommendations

  • Present Insights: Summarise the key findings from your ethnographic study, highlighting how customer behaviors align or diverge from expected patterns.
  • Make Recommendations: Provide actionable suggestions for improving the retail environment, enhancing customer experiences, and potentially increasing sales. These could involve changes to store layout, signage, product assortment, or staff training.


7. Implement Changes and Monitor Results

After making the recommended changes, continue to observe and measure customer behavior to assess the impact. Retail ethnography is an iterative process, and ongoing observation can help retailers stay attuned to their customers’ evolving needs and preferences.



Retail ethnography offers valuable insights into the shopping experience from the customer’s perspective. By systematically observing and analysing customer behaviour in retail settings, businesses can make informed decisions that enhance the shopping environment, improve customer satisfaction, and drive sales. Remember, the key to successful retail ethnography lies in a meticulous approach to data collection, analysis, and application of findings.


Ethnography Experts

Innovation is playing more and more of a role in this area of business analysis. Leading experts like Mary Yoko Brannen are bringing anthropological study and qualitative research principles to understand how regional and cultural differences affect a retailer’s success. Their tools can include embedded participant researchers and cross-cultural study teams.

As user experience design (UXD) becomes an increasingly popular concept to consider in the corporate sector, companies such as Spotless enable clients to outsource study into their customers’ needs and behaviours. Even huge brands such as Facebook, Pizza Express and Disney Channel have engaged their services.

This type of service can be extremely beneficial as staff often can not help but be ‘too close’ to the product or service they offer to really understand it objectively, from a customer perspective. Services offered by the likes of Spotless can deliver insights that transform user experience (UX), customer experience (CX) and broader innovation and business strategies.

The customer insights can also help you to deliver effective training and e-learning for retail employees that is updated in line with your findings.

This type of insight into consumer behaviour allows product development teams and retailers to not only see the numbers on what shoppers are doing, but helps them to understand why, in order to deliver experiences that better meet their motivations, wants and needs.