Miller Zell study is Great, but is it True?

SurveyMiller Zell is one of the top firms in the retail marketing and design industry.  In the first half of the 90’s they were a terrific vendor of mine at Blockbuster.  Among the clever things they do is conduct their own research.  It both gives them a competitive advantage versus firms that either don’t base their work on research or are limited to publically available sources of research; more importantly the research some extra credibility for Miller Zell in the space.

Last week they published a new study, Gone in 2.3 seconds.   This study, surveyed 1000 consumers about the influences on their purchase decisions, and concluded amongst other things that in-store marketing is very effective, and that more than 60% of purchase decisions are still made in the store.  The study is certainly interesting, and I frankly agree with many of it’s conclusions.  You can read more about the study at Ad Week or at the Experiate blog.

However, I have to ask….  is this kind of research methodology remotely valid? Basically they are asking customers to fill out a survey about what effected their purchase decisions.  But psychologists have proven time and time again that human beings aren’t aware of many of the factors that effect their decision making.  Study the work of psychologists like Twitchell, Kahneman, and Tversky to see how bad we really are at understanding and predicting our own decision making.  In fact, it turns out that when you tell a person in advance that after making a decision they will have to explain it, you dramatically influence the decision they will make.  We’re even worse at predicting what will influence our future decisions, and how we will feel about those decisions.  I’m confident that if we could survey every apparel shopper who has an unworn, expensive item hanging in their closet for over a year, just before they made that purchase, most would say they expect the purchase decision to make them very happy and could even give you reasons why it would.  Yet the item hangs in closet as a trophy to buyers remorse.  When the survey respondents said that they were more influenced by in-store communications than advertising, does anyone really beleive that the respondant thought back through the 3000 advertisements a day she was exposed to, before concluding that the fact tag in the store is what compelled her to own an item?

I’ve used this type of research countless times in my career, but I don’t put much stock in it anymore.  We ask people for subjective opinions, often when we know that those people can’t possibly give us accurate answers, and then we tally up their answers and call it "Quantitative" data (usually to imply it’s more credible than the more fuzzy "Qualitative" data of other research methodologies).  It’s a great methodology for proving that a tactic or strategy we already want to follow is the right one, but I don’t think it stands up to much scrutiny.  These days, I far prefer research methodologies that observe the shoppers actual objective behavior, it’s usually slower and more expensive, but it it’s worth it.


  1. Jason-
    We appreciated your piece on our most recent research output. It’s hard to argue with your logic regarding the absolute validity of such a study as a standalone view. As you stated, there were some good learnings and some good validations in the piece. What we try to do at MZ is triangulate multiple data streams, studys, first and second level research and come up with our current design intent strategies. What we are finding is that in this economic downturn, shoppers are indeed trading down at the shelf (and in restaurants), switching to store brands. Multiple messages outside the store can become noise and thus marginalized or discounted. When you add the friction between manufacturers and retailers which has ratcheted up in recent months, you have quite a setting in which to recommend design strategies. I guess the bottom line is that the shopper / consumer is in charge like never before. Please keep tracking us at Your comments are welcome.

    Peter Stamos
    EVP – Retail Services
    Miller Zell

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