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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:32 GMT 10:32 UK
Shoppers in the Wild
Shops that spy on their customers and researchers tracking your every move. Is this really going to lead to perfect shopping or is it snooping by another name? The Money Programme investigates.

Imagine researchers tracking and observing you every second of the day and keeping tabs on all your movements. It's the very latest market research trend, and it's all in the cause of creating the perfect shopping experience.

Customer behaviour

These researchers invade the daily lives of families and find the insights which can give their clients - major brand owners and High Street chains - crucial competitive advantage over their rivals.

Retailers are desperate to understand their customers better, but their tactics are reminiscent of a secret police - they will even rifle through your rubbish in the search for clues as to how you shop.


Garbology is a pseudo-science that focuses on the analysis of waste packaging, left over bits of food and other rubbish in order to come up with a profile of the person concerned.

Do you think it would take long to work out your habits, your likes and dislikes just by looking at your rubbish? It wouldn't take as long as you think.

Martin Raymond specialises in garbology and the Money Programme gave him Trudi Harmon's rubbish to look through. Trudi's son, Joseph, has a severe nut and soy allergy. Martin knows nothing about this, but Trudi's garbage apparently speaks volumes and he soon cottons on to her son's allergies.

"There isn't the strong presence of a male here...I would expect to find more burgers, more steaks. What's missing from this is someone who goes to buy things for another adult...dog...son. They're not on a high income but they do think about what they eat. I think there's a dietary issue that they're trying to shop for and I'm not sure they're getting it."

At a stroke Martin proves the worth of garbology - but doesn't sifting through people's rubbish make us uneasy? What about the civil liberties implications? You might think there are worries, but, as Martin states, the legal position is clear - we have no real rights:

"Once your bin goes outside your boundary, it's public property."

Watching me, watching you

Elsewhere, with the economy in recession and consumer spending levels forecast to drop, the High Street chains are using "observational market researchers".

Siamack Salari is one such expert - he spends his life assessing how products and brands fit into people's lives by living and shopping with families to see how they use them. His company, Everyday Lives, has drawn on household behaviour and video observations of the most ordinary moments in people's lives to come up with new money-spinning product lines. The types of product range enormously, from cosmetics, household cleaners and baby care items to food, drinks and even telecoms.

Salari says: "The reason why everyone has taken up this technique is because we show reality in ways they've never seen it before."


His latest client is Sainsbury's, a retailer that really could do with a helping hand. In less than a decade they've lost top spot to Tesco in the supermarket league and are currently struggling to fight off Asda.

Shares have dropped 40% in the last six months and the company is in trouble - they're willing to adopt new techniques, and this is where Salary comes in. He's being used to come up with ideas that will enable it to see much more of just one range - "Free From" - which is aimed at allergy sufferers.

Salari has focused on Trudi and Joseph and hopes that by watching them 24 hours a day for 2 days, he'll come up with insights for Sainsbury's.

He sees Trudi putting all nut and soy-free food in an accessible drawer for Joseph - why don't Sainsbury's do this in their aisles, Trudi wonders - an obvious finding for Salari to report back. And when Trudi trawls Sainsbury looking for "fun food" for Joseph, she can't find anything that doesn't have soy or nuts in it. This can make for miserable birthday parties when Joseph isn't able to eat all the food everyone else likes. There's an argument here for junking food up, making things which are not junk to appear more treat-like so kids will want to eat them.

It might not be the healthy eating lesson nutritionists would like to instil in kids, but if it gets children eating good food, that could prove a bonus - and if supermarkets can increase their sales, they'll be happy too.

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 23 October 2002.



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