So much information is available on consumer tastes in food that it can be a challenge to go from the "what?" of market research to the "so what?" and the "now what?" The "what triad" is at the heart of new qualitative research techniques, according to Neil Canter of the Business Insights & Analytics Group of Information Resources Inc., based in Chicago. Qualitative research, focusing on the "so what?" component of the trio, augments the abundance of quantitative research readily gathered from scanner data, supermarket loyalty cards, Web-based surveys, and government research.

Enhancing insights gained from focus groups and random questionnaires with methods borrowed from cultural anthropology and ethnology, a new approach to qualitative research uses environmental surveillance in natural settings to understand the subtleties of customer choice. In this new kind of in-depth consumer study, cameras installed in stores and customers' kitchens gather records of regular habits that reveal patterns that guide decisions to buy and use products. Other techniques of collecting information include asking some customers to keep food diaries or take photos illustrating particularly satisfying food experiences.

A combination of qualitative and quantitative research allows companies that apply best practices in determining customer needs and wants to develop new products keyed to precisely targeted markets. Using this two-pronged market analysis, Norpac Foods Inc. of Lake Oswego, Ore., spent 11 months whittling down 30 new product ideas to a single line of mixed vegetables, packaged in various combinations to accompany specific meats. The Just Add line appeals to consumers who want to be able to create flavorful meals by adding chicken or beef to a packet of frozen vegetables.

Disciplined market research replaced a more hit-and-miss market-testing strategy that Norpac formerly used to test new product ideas and provided a convincing reason for the farmer-owned cooperative to continue asking "so what?" in its product development process. The investment in gathering advance information allowed Norpac to forgo high costs of marketing and advertising support and slotting fees, the allowances paid retailers to provide shelf space for trials of new products.

Sources: Arthur Andersen Global Best Practices® knowledge base and "Getting to Know You," by Prepared Foods, Paul Rogers, June 2000.

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