Cat Mat Reboot

Paco Underhill talks about the importance of in-store research.

An old Envirosell/Zen joke is that, “The farthest desk away from the front door is where the person in charge sits.”  We ask both merchants and marketers how well they understand who their customers are and most importantly, who their customer could be.

Category Management or Cat Man (in industry slang), is coming back in fashion after ten years of retreating.  CPG brands are again focused on their in-aisle presence having recognized that many customer search information on-line but still prefer buying in store.  What follows is a true story and important lens to where product growth can be found.

Ten years ago, a major skin brand asked us to do a study of customers shopping their brand at Drug, Grocery and Mass.  We sent teams out to 12 stores across the country to watch, video tape and interview customers in the aisle who had interacted/stopped/looked and maybe even bought the client’s brand.  We were given very specific instructions – “Our customer is a woman between the ages of 18 and 34. Please interview and focus on them.”

As the teams came back from their assignments with their observational and video-taped information, the evidence pointed to a very telling disconnect.  Only half the customers they recorded shopping the brand were from the target marked group of.  Twenty five percent of shoppers were clearly older women, and the rest – men.

The first disconnect was that often there is a difference between the shopper and the end user.  Men may be shopping for their wives, or themselves, and older women again can shop for themselves or for their teenage daughters.  In one funny interview we conducted, a forty something mother pointed out it was easier for her daughter to get mom to buy acne cream for her, so she could spend her own money buying pot.  As father with teenage stepdaughters – I am very aware how much of the girl’s personal care products their mom buys for them.

Looking 34 and being 34, much less 18 is in flux.  My lovely wife once told me that she was carded in a Miami restaurant at age 48 when the bartender didn’t think she was old enough to buy the vodka tonic she’s tried to order.  It might have been the lighting, but it is also testament to the success of the witches and warlock product developers in skin care.

As researchers we recognized that skin care shopping in men is not a metrosexual issue – but that modern men are just interested in the category.  The connection in skin care between vanity and health is an interesting one.  Sunscreen has made it across the gender, age and health line.  I’m on record as a columnist suggesting that a major skin care brand should license the Caterpillar Tractor name or Harley Davidson as the launch to a working men’s “leather care” brand.  Men’s products often work better when they move down-market rather than up.

In the broader world of Cat Man it is often on the edges of a brands target market where growth can be achieved.  The reason we as researchers need to go in-store is often as a reality check.  Again a 21st Century truism is that the customer decides what they want to buy – we just have to pay attention.


Paco Underhill is the author of numerous bestselling books including Why We Buy:  The Science of Shopping and What Women Want.  He is also a strategic advisor and the former CEO of Envirosell Inc. a global research and consulting firm who’s roots are as a testing agency for prototype stores.