The silence of the morning is broken as a coin is placed in a slot and the clatter of metal is followed by the drum of wheels on tiles. The army is advancing, led by metal tanks. The invading group are ruthless and will show no mercy. They care for no one but their tribe. They know the terrain and are a highly experienced force who are in wireless contact with experts globally. They are the shoppers, armed with a trolley. The supermarket aisles are the battleground.

There has been a revolution in the supermarkets. Once upon a time it was the large food companies who told the shopkeepers what they were going to stock. Then the scales tipped and the large supermarket chains decided what they were prepared to put on their shelves. This left the package goods distributors begging for displays and offering incentives. The supermarkets exerted even more pressure by introducing their own less expensive brands.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

However, today the balance has shifted once more and it is the shopper who has control. The power is now in the hands of the army of housewives. They may not even come into the supermarket or store to shop. Online sales are growing as are home deliveries of groceries.

Once in the supermarket, shoppers will often use their mobile phones to check prices or seek alternative products. The shoppers of today are far more aware than their mothers ever were.

Packaged goods brands spend a fortune on advertising on television and out-of-home media. Yet we are told 70% of decisions are made in-store.  We would probably be safer to say over 50%—and it does depend on the category—but the advertiser cannot escape that nobody is a sure customer until they hand over the cash or credit card at the till. Here’s another nugget: 68% of buying decisions are unplanned.

Store layout, pricing, promotions and the attractiveness of the packaging will all influence buying decisions. If you look deeper you will find the location of the product within the supermarket is also important. Too much effort to find a product will put the sale at risk. The wrong association by sitting on the shelf next to ‘unhealthy’ products can affect the sales of a brand that sells itself on being part of a healthy lifestyle.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Loyalty programmes even affect the decision on which store to enter and the amount spent each visit.

Without doubt, these are difficult times for the manufacturer or distributor.

This change in control has led to a new breed of marketers. ‘Shopper marketing’ has become a new discipline within the advertising industry. There are now specialist agencies like Phenomena Group, Evocatif@JWT and Engage that advise clients on how to successfully market their brands by engaging with the shopper. Major advertisers like Unilever and P&G already understand the importance of the new discipline. The latter spends around $500 million annually on shopper marketing.

The path to purchase is complicated by the fact that the shopper may not be the consumer, i.e. most male underwear is bought by women.  The shopper marketing agencies can offer good insights and are assisted by the huge amount of data that can be collected and analysed. Tracking the customer’s shopping history, using the customer database to glean information, reading social media, comparing sales patterns, recording promotion successes and failures, observing in-store behaviour and conducting focus groups, all help unlock the secret of a sale.

Popular consumer brands can waste large sums of money in heavy advertising campaigns, if they make missteps at the point of purchase. Engaging with the army of shoppers is preferable to waiting to be shot down. Intelligence has always helped win wars, so talking to the right people before embarking on a battle plan is essential for all brand owners.

This article is part of The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs.