Four Keys for Conducting Successful Shop-Along Interviews


Shop-Along research has long been a solid methodology for understanding the shopping experience and how consumers make purchase decisions.

Shopper Research

I’ve been able to spend a good deal of time in stores conducting these types of interviews and what I’ve learned could help others conduct shop-along research.

The Purpose of Shop-Along Research

Stores are where final in-person purchase decisions are made. A store is the only place where the brand, product, packaging, messaging, pricing, and competitors are all present in one physical location, where shoppers can see and touch the options, judging each product’s quality and features. Observing the shopper in the store environment is a powerful way to measure the quality of the shopping experience and to gather an understanding of the shopper’s behaviors, preferences, and needs; gaps in the shopping experience; and, in some cases, how the environment shapes the shopper’s behaviors and actions. Shop-along research can help address objectives such as:

  • Observing how shoppers engage and navigate the store environment to find what they need and how they use signage, aisles/layouts, displays, and product packaging.
  • Gaining a deep understanding of shoppers’ decision-making processes, including the trade-offs, considerations, must-haves vs. nice-to-haves, and, ultimately, the reasons they decide to purchase a specific product.
  • Identifying the challenges, frustrations, unhelpful aspects, shortcomings, gaps, and pain points shoppers experience.

Shop-along research helps stores to optimize their product offerings, design layout, and placement of related products and categories to create an efficient and positive shopping experience. It also helps the companies whose brands are sold at these stores to identify ways to improve their product and its features, the messaging on their packaging, and their in-store signage, all of which can increase trial and loyalty among customers.


Determine the logistics

You will need a thorough understanding of the research objectives and questions to be answered and, most importantly, you need to pay careful attention to how these objectives will shape the research.

  • What are the category, product, and brand, and in what areas and spaces of the store can each be found?
  • Will you have permission from the store to conduct interviews inside or will you need to implement a stealthier approach, like mystery shopping but with a moderator tagging along?
  • What markets and stores are eligible for research: is it many or just a few?
  • Are there competitive stores that need to be evaluated? Answers to these questions are critical to moving forward.
  • And when the research is in the field, it requires a good amount of coordination among the recruitment manager, the respondent, and the moderator to ensure they all show up at the scheduled time and place to complete the interview.

Be ready to adjust your approach

Based on the logistics, adjusting the specific approach can help focus the research and accomplish the objectives in the most effective and efficient way. There are several ways to conduct these interviews – in person, remote, and virtual – and an adjustment to one approach over another or even combining approaches can strengthen the research and enrich the insights.

  • In person: This is the gold standard that allows the moderator to observe the shopper in the environment; read cues such as body language and voice tone; and probe where necessary to help understand their experience. In some cases, with store permission, a small group could be considered instead of one or two shoppers.
  • Remote: A remote shop-along allows the moderator to be present using a device that will live-stream a respondents’ experience and, depending on store permissions and budgets, see exactly what the respondent sees (e.g., eye-tracking) as they shop. Another technique would be to have the respondent use their smartphone coupled with the right platform to conduct a live webcam interview, so the moderator can see, hear, and probe the respondent experience while in the shopping environment. This remote style of interviewing allows you to conduct research in multiple markets for the same project, though there can be some limitations with device connectivity in some stores and markets.
  • Virtual: This approach lets the respondent record their shopping experience with images and videos and then upload them to a bulletin board for moderator review. Then a webcam interview would be conducted so the moderator could probe their shopping experience. The virtual approach allows for many markets and stores to be covered and is a good technique for certain product categories and/or in situations in which you’re unable to get permission for in-person shop-along interviews.

Set the stage

The shop-along interview includes a few stages of engagement: the pre-interview, defining the shopping task, observing the shopping task, retracing, and probing the experience, and the post-interview.

  • The pre-interview consists of a few get-to-know-you questions to help with building rapport. These are followed by some baseline questions about the shopper’s relevant background, experiences, and preferences. Information gathered could help inform and adjust the shopping task.
  • Shopping tasks and scenarios should be well defined and simple (e.g., show me how you go about shopping for furniture). The tasks are a critical part of shaping the respondent experience you’ll be evaluating.
  • Observing the shopping task allows the moderator to encourage the respondent to think aloud as they shop, providing a stream-of-consciousness description of their thinking as if they are deciding what to buy or advising their client on what to buy. The fewer questions you ask during the shopping task, the better (none, if possible). You want the respondent to move through the experience from start to completion as if it were a regular shopping trip.
  • Retracing the experience involves the moderator taking the respondent back to the area where they shopped, having them repeat their steps, and asking probing questions along the way. Probes might include asking why they selected a certain product; asking them to elaborate on something they said; asking about certain products they looked at; or asking questions about their body language that indicated some contemplation.
  • The post-task interview: is a recap of their experiences. It involves gathering ratings to measure intensity of their feelings, asking about overall positives and negatives, and allowing them to offer suggestions for improvement. This can be conducted in the aisle, outside the store, or at a nearby location. Sometimes this interview could be conducted by webcam later.

Go with the flow

The moderator’s research work is often conducted in a controlled environment (in-person facility room, webcam, bulletin board, etc.). But being in a store or onsite will present challenges that are hard to anticipate. An experienced moderator is prepared, open-minded, flexible, and ready to adjust on the fly. Examples:

  • You may discover in the pre-interview that the respondent has a pressing real-world need to purchase in a related category. It may be good to see how they shop for that product before moving to the specific task of the study.
  • The store environment can be challenging: inaccessible spaces, displays or aisles not stocked, a fire alarm, being approached by store personnel or other customers—you name it, it can happen. If the moderator remains calm, it will help keep the respondent feeling at ease.
  • Even if your shop-along is impacted by challenges like these, you can still gather as many insights as possible by probing how the respondent would deal with any of these unforeseen circumstances.


Shop-along research is an invaluable tool for stores and brands that are seeking to enhance their understanding of shoppers’ needs and preferences, what shoppers are experiencing in the store, and what can be improved. Following the keys to conducting shop-along interviews – knowing the logistics, being ready to adjust, setting the stage, and going with the flow – will help you gather the insights you need to make your shop-along a successful research endeavor.


Roger Wallace

Roger Wallace

Director, Insights & Innovation

Roger is a senior member of Decision Analyst’s team that specializes in qualitative and innovation team. He has moderated hundreds of in-person and online interviews for qualitative and innovation projects. Roger holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Texas A&M University and is formally trained in qualitative moderating techniques from RIVA Training Institute.

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