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Using Focus Groups

Furniture World Magazine


Tips on how to get the most information out of your market research efforts.

It's fast becoming an industry maxim that '90s consumers know what they want. Home furnishings retailers, manufacturers and suppliers are eager to meet their many and varying needs, and millions have been spent in analysis, all ages, all socio-economic groups, all educational levels, all regions.

We know for sure that the furniture and accessory buying population has doubled in the past five years, and that there is a huge pent-up demand for the goods we sell. We also acknowledge the vast majority of consumers are value conscious. But it's beginning to emerge that quality might be even more important than dollars, the notion that items purchased, particularly casegoods, should become long term members of the family.

The customer, the Popcorn cocooner-turned-burrower, takes pride, we're told, in his/her home environment, and regards furniture as more indicative of personal image than cars, appliances, even the house in which furnishings are placed. Good news! Encouraging to survivors of one of the longest arid cycles known to man since the '30s Depression!

However, a huge percentage of consumers still feel "uncomfortable" when buying furniture, they just don't have fun in home furnishings stores. Why? At a focus group here in Metro Toronto recently, we heard once again "Because we (the consumer) don't know enough about furniture" and, in many instances, "We think the sales person knows even less!" Valuable information.

Most retailers work hard to establish warm relationships with their customers. They keep in touch via newsletters and other direct mail techniques, they create in-store events to introduce new product lines and to bring customers on site, they spend time on "care calls" and many supply on-staff decorators to assist in conceptualization of new approaches to decor and room arrangement.

But each customer group is unique. Each community has its own problems and opportunities. How can we accurately measure the quality, styles, colors and prices that will make our inventories irresistible?

Amongst all the possible ways to measure customer response to new product lines, design, price points and promotions, focus groups are becoming more and more fashionable, and within certain parameters, rightly so. But do they always provide accurate measurement? Are they cost effective? How should they be structured?

Opinions vary. But there's strong agreement by retailer and marketing groups that unless you know how to run a focus group. you'll waste both time and money.

First of all, let's define what a focus group is or should be. Specifically, it should consist of eight to twelve individuals under the guidance of an effective moderator. The participants are encouraged to discuss freely any and all of their feelings, concerns, problems and frustrations relating to specific topics under discussion. Certainly very effective for brainstorming, concept testing and idea generation. But you have to be careful. You should recognize that sometimes audience segments are skewed or biased.

For example, be exceedingly wary of working with trained, "professional" respondents who take part in focus groups regularly. Many do it for money, for a night out, for the fun of it, or because it gives them an opportunity to be adversarial in a permissive setting. Consequently "pros" won't provide the reliability you need.

The moderator has responsibility to direct the action, keep everything moving and focused. He/she must be as objective and removed from the issues to be discussed as humanly possible, yet keep interaction informal, open-ended and free.

The moderator should begin with all 'round introductions to help respondents feel at ease, then provide specific information about the topics to be covered. The discussion, ideally, should be spirited and, if conflicting opinions and ideas emerge, so much the better. Almost every group has one "loud mouth", but don't shut him up too quickly; he can be the catalyst to produce honest response.

Focus group happenings should be properly documented, and it's sensible to video or audio tape so you have a permanent record to back up your assumptions. This is not a one time effort. Focus group analysis should be ongoing, and you'll want to compare reactions and progress.

Judy Silverthorn of Stoney Creek Furniture in the heart of the beautiful Niagara Peninsula believes in focus groups. "We began using them after one of our staff took time to read a book on the subject during his holiday. We were enthusiastic from the beginning. You like to think you know the answers already, but we were willing to give it a try. And, yes, we did find out some things we didn't know!

"We videotaped the groups. You can read body language, see what's happening during the entire 90 minutes of each session. You should have breaks for the respondents, by the way; they get tired and attention span is short.

"Some participants seem to come in believing they've been asked to find out what's wrong, not what's right! The moderator must supply positive reinforcement, be responsible for creating a positive mood, and there should be very specific goals. We hired a professional moderator, an outside person, who could be totally objective.

"We have had three focus groups. In two of them, respondents were drawn from random selection of our customer lists. The third group came from the telephone book. We did not invite couples since they tend to answer as one.

"The sessions were held at outside locations, at Brock University, Mohawk College and at a library. If you take a room at a College or University designed for such meetings, the acoustics are much better and you can hear every word. It's worth it!

"Videotaping is really VERY important. You can miss so much if you don't! We watched as the people came into the room, three men and ten women. You can perceive negative attitudes immediately, you watch people showing approval or disapproval even when they don't speak. One woman was fidgety and obviously wanted the session to end. As a result, we paid no attention to her responses. One man was determined to dominate. You see smiles, nodding, and that's really helpful because if people are timid they might not voice their opinions.

"We wanted to find out how our advertising was working. We passed around ad tear sheets, and played radio commercials. We wondered about our customers' perception of our image through our advertising; which medium was most effective; if they preferred serious or humorous themes; did they like gimmicks, and what motivated them to come into the store.

"We discovered that our customers would like us to provide them with quality hand-out pieces to keep, showing room settings in color, not just one item; they say they 'want to see the whole picture'.

"We showed them a black and white ad with the headline 'Surprisingly Affordable' and the illustrations were line drawings. They liked this ad, said they could 'use their imaginations'.

"They do not want prices to override the page.

"They don't like gimmicks, and they prefer serious rather than humorous ads. They felt that humorous ads can unintentionally be offensive, in bad taste, perhaps ethnically questionable.

"They like sales persons to be well dressed, well spoken, polite, and professional, people who take pride in their work. 'Makes you feel good', they said.

"They won't tolerate our store as 'less than ideal' because they think we have class!

"Women wanted clear, concise maps of how to get to the store with arrows indicating exits. They can't be bothered with studying complicated maps, they don't have time.

"We discovered that the size of our store was intimidating to some customers from the highway. Some thought we manufactured furniture rather than selling retail! But they liked our car park!

"We were really surprised to learn that a small percentage of our customers thought we carried colonial products which we do not!

"When we do our next focus group session, it will be to reassess who our customer really is. For example, we've found that after 25 years of business, some of our customers are moving out of the buying stage; they are in their 80s. Their children and grandchildren are coming in. It would appear that 25 year olds are now earning more money and can afford to buy product traditionally purchased by customers in their 40s. That's new, and we have to gear to it. Also, people in their mid 60s to 70 are moving into condos and retirement homes. The furniture in the family home is too big, and they are buying more compact pieces. But this is an emotional as well as a practical consideration. They are changing their whole lifestyle, and they need extra help and understanding during this time of their lives."

She counseled, "Before you set out to do focus groups, read some of the many books on the subject. Research it just as you would any other project or promotion you're contemplating".

And to aid your research, some books on the subject of focus groups are listed below.

*"Focus Groups as Qualitative Research", Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications--David L. Morgan, 1988.

*"The Practical Handbook and Guide to Focus Group Research", Lexington, MA Lexington Books--Thomas L. Greenbaum, 1988.

*"How to Conduct a Focus Group Study", in "Using Research in Public Relations", Glen M. Broom and David M. Dozier, Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall, 325-330--Glen M. Broom and David M. Dozier, 1990.