Seeing Stores From the Consumer’s Viewpoint With Photos

The visual scene of a store has distinct qualities — its overall design (style, decoration), objects in different forms, and the spatial relations between them. These are not always easy to capture adequately in words, whether in a casual conversation or in a research interview. Photographic images can be used as productive aids to help a consumer to convey his or her perceptions and experiences about a store more vividly and richly.

An image from a store depicts a whole, integrated view of a scene; one gets an impression often of several things arranged together. (This is also true to this matter for an apartment, a house, or an office as types of built establishments.) A consumer-viewer can refer to the interior design of a store overall, for its style, materials, looks and the atmosphere it creates (the exterior design may be of interest as well). Yet, one can also attend to particular details or elements in the scene viewed. While the scene in its particular design is likely to be perceived and appraised holistically by people, particular details (e.g., artwork, furniture and fixtures, products and other artefacts) may assume a special significance in constructing the overall impression of an imaged scene. It would not be correct during analysis to breakdown the scene into bits of detail because it risks overlooking their inter-relations and how they combine; rather details or elements should be treated as visual cues consumers may use in constructing their perceptions and holistic impression of a scene as framed and captured in a photo image.

In photo-elicitation studies, photographs are used to elicit in consumers perceptions, beliefs, memories, thoughts and feelings associated with the content of the visual image. Researchers may employ photographs planned by them, usually commissioned from a skilled photographer, or photographs taken at the site of study by shoppers-participants to be interviewed later on the basis of their own photo images. The latter approach is potentially more powerful since the photos can represent the consumers’ perspectives more authentically and respondents can relate to their own photographs in a more relevant and personal way than they would to photos taken by others.

Each photo image taken by the research participant may contain within it already valuable information about the things in the store that made an impression or had significance to the consumer. However, our understanding becomes more complete and meaningful by letting the consumers-participants interpret their own photos, relate to what they chose to frame in them, and talk about the perceptions, remembered experiences, thoughts and feelings that arise from any of their photos. Photos can help consumers to ‘open-up’ and talk to an interviewer about their personal experiences and feelings, refresh their memories, and refer to visual content of a photo to explicate concepts or issues that are difficult for them to illustrate only verbally. Through a photo a participant can demonstrate virtues of design and visual merchandising in the store that ought to hold and keep versus problems to fix.

  • Note:  In Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), a photo is used primarily as a vehicle to elicit more implicit associations and beliefs, thoughts and feelings about a store or retailer’s brand, for instance, beyond the photo’s concrete content. However, in research that is more explicitly concerned with the design of stores and shopper experiences in them, the visual content of photos is of greater material to the objective of research and has to represent images of the store itself.

In two research projects on interior design of retail stores, Petermans, Kent and Van Cleempoel (2014) conducted photo-elicitation studies at two food superstores and at a shoe and fashion store [1]. Shoppers-participants at the food stores were concerned mostly with functional aspects of design and visual merchandising that had an impact on their shopping experience. Actually much of their attention was devoted to products in the store. Photos were dedicated also to showing where respondents were ‘dissatisfied’; they were particularly troubled or annoyed by absence of products. Photos focused on interior store environment revealed respondents’ content with order, tidiness, and well-stocked, plentiful displays. They were less pleased by obstacles or ‘hindrances’ found on their way or causing them delays (e.g., at checkout). The researchers report little if any expression of shoppers’ sentiment at the food stores, and there is hardly any reference to aesthetics of store design. The best that could be said by respondents is that a food store was “a physically safe place, functionally operational, and ultimately pleasing to be in”.

The study at the shoe and fashion store told quite a different story. Here elements of interior design of the store played a major role, although respondents were still very much engaged with the assortment and visual display of products. With regards to the store’s design, respondents used often adjectives such as ‘fancy’, ‘chic’, ‘luxurious’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘trendy’. They noted particular aspects of the design as being richly coloured and full of contrasts. On the one hand it was described as dark, on the other hand as playful and artistic. That might explain why it was also evaluated as original and overwhelming. Respondents were not bothered, and were even fascinated, by different styles of design (dark colours and materials, styles of lighting) in different areas of the store’s space; they thought mostly that those choices fitted in an heterogeneous design and created overall an eclectic design. The children’s department attracted special attention since its design was more different from other areas. Participants appreciated functional as well as hedonic qualities of variably-designed places in the store. When it comes to assortment and visual merchandising, most participants liked the large and broad selection of products, but some had reservations about its overflowing and messy appearance (‘an abundance of products’). Nonetheless, respondents also let their eyes set on particular product items that they captured in photographs.

Petermans and her colleagues used different techniques in interviews to organise and choose the photos about which they would further talk with respondents  (e.g., asking respondents to group their photos into classes of ‘elements’, or choose a subset of their photos that were most significant to them). They suggest that elicitation with photos does not produce more information than in traditional verbal-only questioning but a different kind of information; that is because photo-elicitation makes research participants more attentive to stimuli (visual), aspects or issues not considered in traditional interviews. They provided their participants disposable film cameras for the food stores and digital cameras for the shoe and fashion store. They recommend digital cameras for convenience and immediacy of use of photos (photos can thus be used by respondents at the store location, less as reminders and more as references).

Burt, Johansson and Thelander (2007) connect the use of photographic images to the study of image of a retailer’s corporate brand [2]. They draw an important linkage between two meanings of ‘image’: (a) Brand image as an abstract cognitive network of attribute associations describing the brand in a consumer’s memory and mind; (2) Visual image as a perceived pictorial depiction of a set of objects and other elements arranged together. It is only natural to try to construct from the network of brand descriptors a visual mental image of a brand and thus draw an intuitive connection between the two conceptions of image. Burt et al. propose this explanation: “Image is invariably a subjective, personal, and consumer-centric concept. The symbolic, experiential, dimensions of brand image lead to questions as to how consumers ‘see’ or ‘visualize’ a brand, i.e., how they ‘picture’ the brand.

The researchers chose to focus on an international retailer, IKEA; this allowed them to examine cultural differences in perceptions and attitudes towards the global retail brand (participants were students of British, Chinese, and Greek origin in the UK, and Swedish students in their home country, also home to IKEA). Participants visited a store (in Glasgow or Malmo) for a duration of 1.5 to 2.5 hours equipped with a disposable camera. The room settings, a well-known concept of IKEA, made strong impressions on everyone (e.g., imagining how a setting would suit one’s lifestyle), though the groups conceived and approached the designs differently (e.g., the Chinese found the room settings of ‘western style’ strange and inappropriate for them to live in). Participants furthermore captured in photographs elements of ‘decoration and labelling’, but similar elements were assigned different meanings between the national groups. The researchers were  impressed by abstract discussions (even in a foreign language) of deep meanings that students engaged in when viewing their photographs. Other themes touched by photos included children (e.g., novel for the Greeks, unusual or peculiar for the Chinese), colour (e.g., in children’s settings), and the restaurant (e.g., felt most natural for the Swedes).

Burt and his colleagues reveal how differences in cultural context are expressed in the ways shoppers rely on personal experiences and other types of information (e.g., advertising, catalogues, press media) to form their image of IKEA. The Chinese, who were least familiar with the retailer, relied entirely on their recent experience; the British participants, and less so the Greeks, combined mostly between their recent and previous experiences of store visits, and possibly used other information; IKEA is institutionalised the most in the culture and consumer socialisation of the Swedes and hence they performed the more complex balance between their personal shopping experiences and external information (e.g., they relied more than others on IKEA’s catalogue). However, the researchers conclude that the store remains the prominent source of image formation — it is the basis as well as a reference for subsequent updates and modification of the retailer’s image.

The methodology of photo-elicitation can be utilised in other business establishments that provide services (also known as ‘servicescapes’) for surfacing the perceptions, impressions and insights of customers from their experiences, particularly with design. Such an application was well-demonstrated by Pullman and Robson (2007) in a hotel environment [3]. The participants concentrated on the design and other features in their guest rooms, and secondarily in public areas (e.g., lobby, dining hall, bar).

The photos taken portrayed primarily scenes of design in the guest rooms, from overall looks (e.g., floors and walls, decoration) to particular elements such as furniture and fixtures in the bedroom and bathroom. In addition, guests-participants seemed to pay attention to amenities (e.g., things added to improve the stay such as a TV set or hair dryer) and service (e.g., cleanliness, bed arrangement). The attention of guests to details was remarkable; the insights of participants thereby on aspects of design (aesthetics) as well as convenience might not be gained without those elements being photographed first and then explained by them. The themes covered in explanations of the participants included quality of experience, functionality, similarity to home (e.g., in ambience, comfort), evidence of thoughtfulness (as shown through service and amenities), and sense of place (e.g., view from the window, but also pictures of landscape from the location). Participants related to things, corroborated by their photos, that either pleased them (e.g., a flower arrangement, a drier place for the soap in shower, tea & coffee tray) or disturbed and annoyed them (e.g., TV was placed in a nice wood armoire but its door kept closing, ‘free-running’ and visible wires of electricity or phone/Internet). Design had stronger impact on guests’ perceptions of quality of experience as well as functionality; another salient contributor that can enhance the quality of experience is service.

An important advantage of elicitation with the aid of photos, especially when taken by the consumers-participants, is the power of photos to encourage the participants to talk more openly and in greater depth about their experiences and perceptions, thoughts and feelings associated with visual images from a store captured in the photos. Another key advantage is the tendency of consumers to take notice of visual aspects and features, and show greater sensitivity to them, when taking photographs during the experience, leading to insights that might not arise otherwise; this may occur in a shopping experience just as in various other types of experiences (e.g., a sightseeing trip, stay at a hotel, dining in a restaurant), and when consumers do it voluntarily to their own pleasure, not just to the request of researchers. Designers and retailers may take benefit of this research approach to obtain understanding and insights of consumers’ viewpoint in planning and executing store designs that enhance the customers’ experiences, functionally and hedonically.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


[1] Photo-Elicitation: Using Photographs to Read Retail Interiors Through Consumers’ Eyes; Ann Petermans, Anthony Kent, & Koneraad Van Cleempoel, 2014; Journal of Business Research, 67 (11), pp. 2243-2249 [Manuscript retrieved from A. Kent – exemplar photos can be found at the end of manuscript.]

[2] Retail Image as Seen through Consumers’ Eyes: Studying International Retail Image through Consumers’ Photographs of Stores; Steve Burt, Ulf Jonansson, & Asa Thelander, 2007; International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, 17 (5), pp. 447-467 [Manuscript retrieved from Researchgate.netl

[3] Visual Methods: Using Photographs to Capture Customers’ Experience With Design; Mellie Pullman and Stephani K.A. Robson, 2007; Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48 (2), pp. 121-144.  [Electronic version retrieved from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.]

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