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Seeing Through Buyers' Eyes
By PHRED DVORAK
January 29, 2007; Page B4

TOKYO -- Susumu Sato doesn't need glasses to see properly. But he owns 60 pairs and wears glasses daily. Mr. Sato is head of advertising and investor relations at Japanese eyeglasses retailer Meganesuper Co., which requires employees to wear glasses at work. "I change them every day," says the 50-year-old, sporting a pair of black-and-white frames that clash with his navy-blue striped suit. The everyone-wears-glasses policy at Meganesuper (literally, "Eyeglasses Supermarket") is an extreme solution to a universal management problem: How to get a handle on customers' needs. Many companies poll their clientele with surveys and focus groups. Others deploy researchers to study consumer behavior. By videotaping consumers, General Motors Corp. recently found a hitch in the controls for DVD players in its vans. A few, like Meganesuper, ask employees to literally see through the eyes of a customer. At Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., all new employees -- from computer programmers to nurses -attend a two-day retreat where they spoon-feed each other and perform other exercises designed to mimic being a patient. GM asks senior managers to drive and evaluate the company's vehicles. In 2001, Procter & Gamble Co. managers preparing for the launch of a premium line of Pampers diapers held meetings in a room designed like an oversize nursery, donning blurry glasses and sitting on huge chairs in an attempt to simulate the experience of babies. "If you experience the experience of the consumers, you pick up all these details," says John Hauser, a professor of marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. Putting employees in customers' shoes can also elicit information that surveys can't. That is because customers themselves often don't know why they like a product or how it can be improved, says Priya Raghubir, associate professor of marketing at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business. In the mid-1990s, Ms. Raghubir says, consumers who were asked to assess features in Land Rover Ltd. sport-utility vehicles rated off-road capability as more important than image. Yet a follow-up study showed that few people actually took the SUVs off-road, suggesting image was more important than the survey responses suggested. Ms. Raghubir says the disparity doesn't mean that companies should ignore what consumers say but that they should take the responses with a grain of salt. "People are unable to answer what they don't know," Ms. Raghubir says. She and Mr. Hauser suggest managers use a mix of surveys and other kinds of research that put employees close to the consumer experience.

Meganesuper, a public company with annual sales of 38 billion yen ($313 million) based southwest of Tokyo, started requiring employees to wear its glasses at work about 10 years ago. Mr. Sato says the idea, proposed by the training and sales divisions, was to help Meganesuper's 2,000 employees critique its products and sales process. Employees have to pay for the glasses, although they get a 20% discount. Mr. Sato says nobody has ever protested the policy, although workers who don't really need glasses and use pairs with nonprescription lenses sometimes forget to bring them to the office. (They are advised to keep an extra pair in their desks.) Several years ago, employees who had bought Meganesuper's molded-plastic glasses found they had trouble with the frames slipping down their noses. They suggested adding the kind of nose pads common in wire-frame glasses -- a feature that is now a hit with customers, Mr. Sato says. Yoshihiro Shibata, 43, a floor manager at a Meganesuper store in eastern Tokyo, says he has 27 pairs of glasses with varying prescriptions and lens types. Mr. Shibata says being fitted for all of those glasses has made him more considerate when he measures customers. The variety also helps him to learn what types of lenses are best for different kinds of users and which products live up to their advertising. Mr. Shibata found that wearing glasses with a certain coating eased the headaches he often felt when he spent a long time at the computer. He also found that his eyes were less tired when he wore a special type of thin lenses that cut down on distortion. "If I don't know myself, I can't explain it" to customers, Mr. Shibata says. "You don't really know from just looking at a catalog." Write to Phred Dvorak at phred.dvorak@wsj.com. Theory & Practice is a weekly look at people and ideas influencing managers. Send comments to theorypractice@wsj.com. For an archive of past columns, visit CareerJournal.com/Columnists.

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