Observation research

It is for situations such as this that observation techniques are particularly valuable. 'Retail audit' research is now largely based on computer observation of retail sales. Grocery retailing is at the forefront of techniques in this area. Deliveries are now made just in time, using information provided by state-of-the-art stock-control systems. These are allied to the highly sophisticated electronic point of sale (EPOS) systems that transmit data directly from electronic store checkout tills, which read bar codes from goods purchased. Linking this system to in-store loyalty programmes or special offers measures how customers respond to the loyalty programme or how successful special promotions are at generating product purchases.

In areas that are not covered by this service, diary methods and physical observation of how products are bought, stored and used may be made.

Observation techniques are also used a great deal in social planning: in traffic counts, for example, or observation of hospital out-patient departments to investigate ways of minimizing waiting time, and therefore saving the space taken by large waiting areas.

Observational research in online markets may include monitoring browser behaviour through a website or key-stroke recording.

Increasingly, observation is being undertaken electronically rather than by people, as in store layout investigations using cameras, television-watching measurement or website usability studies. As well as overcoming the limitations of memory, the other important advantage of observation as a method of data collection is that the behaviour of the individual is not influenced by the research process. For behaviour that the individual feels reflects badly on him or her, such as smoking or drinking, observation may give a more accurate picture than personal interviewing. Doctors believe that patients' estimates of drinking and smoking are under-estimated by 100 per cent._

The main limitation of observation methods is that while they may provide good information on what people do, they offer no explanation as to why that might be so. If observation data is interpreted subjectively with incorrect explanations of the behaviour observed, then the advantages gained by use of the method are lost. For this reason, observation methods are often combined with other sources of data. As an example, the management of a chain of bingo halls initially assumed that regular attenders were primarily gamblers and more could be attracted with higher prizes. When this approach failed, subsequent group discussion indicated that many people play bingo for its social benefits. More money spent on decor and 'ambiance' would attract higher attendance from this group, who were put off by the rather seedy appearance of some bingo halls.

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