Consumer Research in Germany Testing in the Provinces

A kind of dress rehearsal for new products
A kind of dress rehearsal for new products | Photo (detail): © Niki Love -

Germany’s largest market research institute is testing new products in a small town in the Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate in the South-West of Germany. The town is considered to be representative of the whole of Germany.

At first glance there is nothing unusual about the town of Hassloch. It has an open-air swimming pool, three football clubs, a wine festival, a Christmas market and there are about 20,000 people living in this community in the Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate in the South-West of Germany. There are the elderly, the young, singles, families, newcomers and those who have lived there all their lives.

But sometimes there are products on the shelves of Hassloch’s supermarkets that are to be found nowhere else in Germany. Sometimes shoppers there put washing powder or sweets in their supermarket trolley that are not actually on sale anywhere else in the rest of the country.

Since 1986 Hassloch has been a venue for a  product testing market that is unique in the whole of Germany. The Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung – GfK (Association for Consumer Research), Germany’s largest market research institute, tests newly developed products there to see if they have a chance or not on the market. A total of seven supermarkets are involved in the project. What they do is smuggle the test products onto the shelves among the regular products. “It is a kind of dress rehearsal,” says Director, Andreas Völtl, who is in charge of the project. The companies who developed the product have in fact already carried out tests on such features as: taste, visual appearance, packaging, advertising. “We try to find out whether the interaction of the various features works or not,” says Völtl.

A cross-section of German society

Hassloch, the GfK believes, is like Germany. And what is even more important – Germany is like Hassloch. Most of the German population do not live in big cities, like Hamburg or Berlin. They live in small towns like Hassloch – the rural location is typical, the age distribution, the population structure, the percentage of foreigners living there. And that is what makes it ideal for the GfK to test what tastes the people living in Germany have.  

About a third of the town, 3,400 households, are cooperating on the project: Retired couples, singles, the well-off familiy and the jobless – a cross-section of German society.

The people taking part do not really have a lot of contact with the GfK. The idea is for the project to be as authentic as possible, so the people should not be reminded of the fact that they are test persons too often in their daily lives. There are no questionnaires, no evaluations, they only have a household card which they have to show at the check-out. The products are then automatically scanned, filed in a customer profile and directly submitted to the GfK. The GfK can then, over a period of time, produce a reliable success prognosis – and at the same time, obtain a fairly precise profile of the customer. 

A test run for new products

A test run really is a worthwhile undertaking for the client who has commissioned the test. It shows in advance whether a product will be able to hold its own in practice for entering a product on the market can be expensive. The company has to take on employees, it has to purchase raw materials, machines, packing materials and it has to launch an advertising campaign. “In no time at all it can get into the millions,” says Völtl. Money that is actually lost, if the product does not function in reality.

A test can last from 16 weeks to two years. It takes a lot of time to ascertain whether a product is received well by the customers and bought again. It is, however, only about ten products that are tested in a year.

The process is complex. The GfK has to analyse comparative products and define the envisaged range and repurchasing rate. And, alongside the product itself, it also tests the advertising. The participants are divided up into test groups and control groups. The test group is sometimes subjected to different advertising on TV and radio as the control group. The GfK fades spots for the test products into the regular advertising; the TV magazines also have special adverts. The control group, on the other hand, is only subjected to the usual advertising. In this way the market researchers can compare purchasing patterns and find out whether the advertising campaign has worked or not.

Consumer protection groups are sceptical

When the GfK has evaluated its findings, it then makes its recommendations. Sometimes it gives the product a green light, at others it suggests modifications – maybe for the packaging or the advertising print. Sometimes, but only very rarely, it advises against a product being launched. “When we realise that a product is not selling at all, it is in fact a real shock for the client ,” says Völkl. “The manufacturer has after all invested a lot of time and money in the product.” As a rule, though, the clients accept the GfK’s recommendations, even if they are not so favourable. The findings they come up with are considered to be reliable.  “Products that are recommended for a market launch will be successful,” says the GfK. Up to now they have never made an incorrect prognosis.  

Consumer protection groups do in fact see the process somewhat sceptically, as the participants reveal a lot about themselves and the rewards are modest: they receive a TV magazine free of charge and take part regularly in raffles. In Hassloch, however, the test situation has become normal. “Many households have been taking part for almost 30 years,” says Völkl. Only seldom does his project team actually hear any words of regret – when, for example, a product they have become particularly fond of suddenly disappears from the shelves without so much as a whimper.