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    CSNews Goes Inside Coca-Cola's Shopper Experience Innovation Center

    The SEIC enables the company and retailers to get up close and personal with shoppers.

    By Melissa Kress, Convenience Store News

    ATLANTA -- Two blocks from The Coca-Cola Co.'s corporate headquarters is an average, ordinary office park. And in that office park sits an average, ordinary office building. What resides inside that building, though, is anything but average or ordinary.

    Stepping through the front doors, you find yourself on a "boulevard" in the middle of a shopping plaza, complete with gas pumps and a drive-thru window. Welcome to Coca-Cola's new Shopper Experience Innovation Center (SEIC).

    The beverage giant broke ground on SEIC in December 2011 and opened it this May, but the concept of building a realistic retail environment in which to study shopper behaviors and gain shopper insights has been on Coca-Cola's drawing board for a few years. The company expects this center to be an invaluable part of its business for years to come.

    "We expect the center to deliver exciting developments for many years to come," said Ron Hughes, director of the Shopper Experience Innovation (SEI) division at The Coca-Cola Co.

    On paper, SEIC is described as "an incubator for new ideas, a laboratory to test them and a dazzling resource to bring solutions to life for customers." Up close and personal, it is much more than that.

    In addition to the boulevard, gas pumps and quick-serve restaurant (QSR) drive-thru window, SEIC consists of two retail environments -- one large, one small -- that can be transformed into five different retail environments: convenience, drug, grocery, QSR and value. The center's goal is to not only meet today's shopper needs, but also meet the needs of shoppers five years from now and beyond -- what Coca-Cola calls its 2020 Vision.

    "The realities of the shopper landscape are clearly changing," Hughes pointed out. To meet those changes, retailers are looking toward innovation, understanding the shopper at a deeper level and staying ahead of shopper behavior trends, he explained.

    That is where SEIC specifically, and Coca-Cola's SEI division in general, come into play. "It is not just about the next cool thing," Hughes said. "SEI is really focused on reinventing that shopper experience from A to Z. It is not just about building a better rack or building a better cooler."

    The center uses shopper insights, focus groups, shop-alongs and in-depth interviews to shape Coca-Cola's innovation strategies, along with its retailers' strategies.

    "We strongly believe the deepest shopper insights are created by looking forward to apply back," Hughes noted.

    In practice, shopper groups are brought in to participate in research, although they are not told who is conducting the research. They are then given different briefs -- or scenarios -- outlining what they are shopping for. For example, the shoppers may be told they are stopping at a convenience store on their way to work in the morning, or given broad instructions to shop for an evening meal.

    SEIC has 46 camera locations with the capability to have 21 cameras live at any given time. The cameras enable Coca-Cola and its retailers to see where shoppers go when entering a store, where they don't go and where they linger.

    "When looking for shopper insights, everything is important -- eye contact, the way they pick up items off the shelf," Hughes said. "This is a center that allows us to do qualitative directional research."

    Since SEIC opened in May, the center has hosted 22 shopper sessions. Coca-Cola looks to have 16 to 20 shoppers per session. These sessions allow the company and its retailer customers to make real-time adjustments and see the effects of those adjustments.

    This is not to say Coca-Cola has not been conducting shopper research up to this point, but now the company can do it in a central, more focused way, according to Eileen Thanner, vice president of the Commercial Capabilities Center of Excellence at The Coca-Cola Co.

    "[SEIC] is a way to have a different and more elevated conversation," Thanner said.


    By Melissa Kress, Convenience Store News
    • About Melissa Kress Melissa Kress joined Stagnito Business Information's Convenience Store News and Convenience Store News for the Single Store Owner in November 2010. Her primary beats include alcoholic beverages and tobacco. Kress has been a professional journalist since 1995. A graduate of West Virginia University, she began her career in community journalism before moving to business-to-business publishing in 2000, covering commercial real estate.

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