Sugar Research Was Anything But Sweet

In Manchester recently I was stopped by a market researcher to ask if I would buy a new product. The whole experience was very poor and left me feeling frustrated. I’m more inclined than most to answer questions since I have an unhealthy interest in research, so if I walked away feeling frustrated what would other people feel like?

The researchers had set themselves up on a side street, next to a busy main shopping street. I think their choice of site wasn’t ideal, since the side street was very quiet. Far better to set yourself up on the edge of the main street, as you have the chance to (pseudo-)randomise then, rather than having to ask everyone who passes. But still…

Without explaining who the researchers were (simply, “we’re researchers…”) they asked if I bought sugar, and what packaging the sugar was in when I bought it. I was showed a cue card with a picture of a sugar packaged in a bag, a cardboard box, and a plastic box. I know I’ve recently bought my wife icing sugar for baking so I know it was in a cardboard box, which I indicated. The researcher, quite rudely, said that it couldn’t have been because that product wasn’t launched yet. I was incredulous. I was giving up my time to answer questions without any compensation and I was being patronised.

I think I should have walked away at this point but I wanted to see what else this researcher had up her sleeve. So, after agreeing that I couldn’t possibly have bought sugar in a cardboard box, she recorded that it was a bag. Whatever.

The next question was, to paraphrase, “If a plastic, resealable box was a penny extra for the same amount of sugar, would you buy it?” Before I get in to my answer and her issues with that, this is not a great way to ask this question. It is asking about a hypothetical situation. The respondent‘s answer could be anything, and there’s no real way to tell if that’s how they would behave. Far better to ask about a similar situation that has recently occurred, and what the respondent did in that case. You are then grounding your question in an actual occurrence, and you can be reasonably confident that the respondent actually behaved in that way. For example, I would ask if the respondent buys other products that are available in plastic, resealable containers.

So, because of this going through my head, I answered that I wasn’t sure if I would buy a plastic container or not. I don’t really care and I don’t really know, so I thought I was doing her a favour by being honest. She was not happy with me. She cajoled me in to answering yes or no, as if it was the simplest question in the world and that I was being stupid or obtuse for not answering her properly.

At that point I actually did walk off because I’d had enough of being patronised, so I’ve no idea what she recorded my answer as. Probably a non-response, or just discarded it. Either way, how can their results even remotely reflect people’s real opinions and buying habits?

If you are reading this and you just happen to work for a large sugar company and have just commissioned some research to see if your consumers would buy a plastic container, discard it. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Fire your researchers, and I’ll re-do it for you.


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