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Originally published December 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 18, 2007 at 9:14 AM

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Scientists focus on habits of a prized species: the shoppers

When Heidi Ward pulled a pair of $1,200 black leather Dolce & Gabbana boots from a box in her tidy walk-in closet, Shelley Balanko wanted...

Seattle Times business reporter

The Hartman Group

The firm's researchers hang out with consumers on behalf of corporate clients such as Kellogg's and Wal-Mart to learn how people live, and hopefully what they shop for.

Corporate ear on America

The firm's researchers look for subjects who are articulate and imaginative, and listen for these things:

"Fresh": Once the hallmark of quality, the term now is used by consumers to mean products that are so fresh, they're nearly alive — just picked, just cut or just milked.

"Organic": Another term that has begun to morph, "organic" can mean food certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or groups like Oregon Tilth. Some people talk about "no hormones," "no pesticides" and "local" instead of "organic" directly.

"Sustainability": Because consumers don't often use the word, researchers listen instead for references to responsibility, global warming, local farmers' markets, recycling and products with less packaging.

Emotion: Researchers learn the most when people convey feelings about a product or brand, like a parent who humanizes a cookie box by holding it up and saying, "I'm a friendly mom who's giving my kid a hug."

Contradiction: People will say they don't let junk food into their homes, then reveal a secret stash that comes out after the kids have gone to bed.

Surprise: Hartman researchers regularly witness someone realizing for the first time that a favorite snack isn't organic after all or has high-fructose corn syrup when they thought it didn't. Shoppers use shortcuts — brands, colors, key words — and sometimes don't know what they're getting.

When Heidi Ward pulled a pair of $1,200 black leather Dolce & Gabbana boots from a box in her tidy walk-in closet, Shelley Balanko wanted to know what they meant to her.

Encouraged by Balanko's friendly questions and easy smile, Ward riffed for a few minutes about the boots — an excessive purchase, she thought, but one that will last for years. "I wear them, I love them," she said, hugging a boot.

Balanko followed Ward into her bathroom, her children's bedroom and most of the rest of the modern house that she and her husband built in Magnolia. Equipped with a handheld video camera and a doctorate in applied social psychology, Balanko gazes into other people's lives for the Hartman Group in Bellevue.

The information is worth millions to clients like PepsiCo, General Mills and Kellogg's, which for decades have relied on telephone surveys and focus groups to find out what consumers want.

Hartman's researchers — many with doctorates in anthropology, sociology and linguistics — believe they learn more by chatting people up in their homes, hanging out with them while they shop and listening to them at house parties. Their subjects are more relaxed, and researchers see everything firsthand rather than relying on people's memories and fudged versions of themselves.

"Our commitment is to understand the reality of how consumers live," founder Harvey Hartman said. "As people change the way they live, they change the way they shop as well."

Each year, Hartman interviews hundreds of people across the country. It finds them through friends, community bulletin boards, research databases and a host of other means, then screens them for certain topics, often food-related because that's what many of Hartman's clients sell.

The work itself is intimate. Researchers explore people's refrigerators and kitchen cabinets, and they ask them about food choices while they shop.

Certain terms — anything from "less fast food" to "no hormones" — tell them where someone fits in the food universe.

Researchers also watch for emotions, contradictions and surprises. They see people's jaws drop when they first read the label on a favorite snack and realize it's not organic or trans-fat-free like they assumed.

Shoppers use quick cues like brand names or colors to decide whether a product fits their criteria, and sometimes they miss.

By paying attention to those shortcuts, Hartman helps clients target certain markets and create new brands.

Hartman often does not know how its clients use the research. It sells expertise on topics like "organic" and "sustainability," and it makes suggestions for particular clients, but communication frequently ends there.

Hartman knows the information is valuable because clients keep coming back.

The firm can point to some projects it impacted directly, like helping Bartell Drugs choose the name and logo for Everyday Elements, its new line of personal-care products.

Hartman also suggested that the grocery chain Wild Oats create an online forum a few years ago for customers to chat about food and shopping. The forum drew thousands of customers, and their posts changed the chain's product offerings, according to former Wild Oats executive Laura Coblentz.

"Their insights are very realistic, as opposed to something gleaned out of a focus group in some artificial environment," said Coblentz, now vice president of marketing at Horizon Organic, where she plans to hire Hartman again.

Hartman attracted big-name clients like Kraft and Wal-Mart after adding the up-close-and-in-your-closet touch to its market-research mix about eight years ago. Other companies, from IBM to the consulting firm Ziba Design in Portland, have dipped into ethnographic research as well.

Hartman doesn't disclose revenues, but it has grown from fewer than 10 employees in 1999 to about 50. Its custom research runs from about $25,000 to $300,000.

The firm uses the same subjects repeatedly and relies heavily on food lovers who are thoughtful and expressive, like Ward, who has worked with Hartman on a few studies.

This time, she's part of a study to find out what consumers mean by the term "premium."

It is one of Hartman's independent studies, which typically are sponsored by a couple of clients but shared with any who want to buy it.

Balanko interviewed Ward about "premium" for more than an hour.

Ward talked about what she buys and eats while Balanko listened like a good friend, occasionally interrupting to ask a question or to say that she buys the same brand of lip gloss. If it weren't for the video camera and the money — usually about $50 to $125 — from Hartman, the interview might have been one curious friend asking another about her shopping habits.

At Ward's house, Balanko saw a lot of expensive items — like the boots. Ward contrasted them to a pair of Nine West pointy-toed shoes that she likes but doesn't see as premium because they won't last long.

With appliances, Ward was more brand-focused. A real-estate agent with a builder husband, she chose high-end kitchen appliances including a Wolf Range and a Sub-Zero refrigerator for the house they built. Those brands will help sell it later, she explained.

When it came to food, Ward did not always equate expense with premium, Balanko noticed. In fact, it ticked off Ward when a nearby market charged a few dollars more than Fred Meyer for a cheese she considers premium.

Balanko left Ward's house with another piece to the premium puzzle in her video camera. It still needed analysis, but her first impression was that she'd found an affluent foodie who loves modern architecture and likes some expensive things, but who doesn't believe pricey necessarily means premium.

"What came across to me was, premium means quality and premium also means longevity," she said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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