Coke works to enhance shopping experience

Coca-Cola Co. strategists and design teams are aggressively pursuing innovative retail concepts and hatching new merchandising strategies in collaboration with retail and restaurant partners.

The scene of this cutting-edge collaboration is its Shopper Experience Innovation Center in Atlanta. The center includes high-tech video tracking and communications technology, along with two large-scale spaces that can rapidly be transformed to resemble a whole range of realistic retail shopping environments.

In Coke's words, each of the rooms can "morph like a movie set into a realistic-scale, customizable outlet for any channel, from drug or value to supermarket to quick-service restaurant to convenience retail and more." The company calls SEIC "an incubator for new ideas and a laboratory to test them."

The center, said Ron Hughes, director of shopper experience innovation at Coca-Cola Refreshments, will help drive "game-changing, longer-range, future innovations" for retail merchants and food service companies.

"Our vision around the SEIC is … we want to be literally the best innovator among CPG companies," Hughes told reporters during a tour of the facility May 9. "We want to own the space of delivering cutting-edge innovations that not only look good, … but that also actually drive transactions with shoppers and guests. We think if we can do that, we are providing value for our customers, and they begin to seek us out … as a way to grow their businesses as well."

The center is set up to immerse groups of real consumers in a realistic drug store, variety store, dollar store or supermarket shopping experience. Dozens of discreetly placed cameras track focus-group customers and provide live feeds to Coke's retail partners and to its own merchandising teams. The goal: to gauge consumers' reactions to different planogram strategies, new merchandising concepts and shelf placement of products from Coke and other vendors.

"Our cameras can read shoppers' facial expressions … and can even read what they're texting on their cell phones," noted one Coke representative.

Since the SEIC opened on May 15, 2012, Coke has brought in roughly 96 retail and food-service customers for merchandising demonstrations and strategy sessions, along with more than 25 focus groups of consumers to shop the mockup stores and talk about their shopping experiences and preferences.

"For our drug retail customers, the SEIC enables us to set aside everyday transaction discussions and focus on the needs of the shopper," said John Carroll, VP drug and value for Coca-Cola Refreshments. "Ultimately, this facility allows us to explore merchandising innovations and identify shopper-based solutions that can help drive traffic and increase basket size."

Among the retail concepts that have already emerged from the SEIC dialogues with Coke's customers is a new type of self-contained, free-standing cooler unit, called the On The Road Again merchandising solution. The new unit, which incorporates snack items on racks at each side of a distinctively designed cooler case for beverages, is designed to capture impulse buys and generate additional combo sales, Hughes said.

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