Sensory Discovery Center: Giving Our Senses a Workout
Gallery: Spectrum [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
By: Kimberly Cassell
Spectrum Discovery Center tests a variety of products, and you – as a consumer – gets paid if chosen to sit on a test panel and participate.
Have you ever wondered why lip balms are manufactured in certain flavors…or why a particular brand of coffee has that identifiable aroma and taste? Oftentimes, it’s because these products are tested by those who will likely use them: consumers.
Wikipedia calls product testing “a process of measuring the properties or performance of products.” It’s likely that assembly lines – mass production – brought about the need to maintain a technical or manufacturing standard.
Over time, testing has also been linked to safety. “Product testing is a strategy to increase consumer protection by checking the claims made during marketing strategies such as advertising, which by their nature are in the interest of the entity distributing the service and not necessarily in the interest of the consumer. The advent of product testing was the beginning of the modern consumer movement,” wikipedia says.
Spectrum Discovery Center is located in downtown Kannapolis, just a stone’s throw from the NC Research Campus (NCRC). With is headquarters in New Jersey doing so well, the need for expansion was self-evident and the Kannapolis location opened in 2009.
Lee Stapleton is program director for Kannapolis’ Spectrum location. “Through a contact our president, Gail Civille, made with Dr. Steve Zeisel at UNC, we learned about the North Carolina Research Campus. Our location allowed us to keep the walk-in coolers from the former restaurant (K&W Cafeteria) on the site, and build custom facilities for our panels and consumer testing,” she says.
In a nutshell, Spectrum is hired by companies to make their products more marketable. “We use many different methods for learning about people and products,” Stapleton says. “Whether introducing something new, understanding the ‘magic’ behind certain products or learning what’s needed to make a product better, we put our curiosity and creativity to work finding answers.”
According to decisionanalyst.com, “Product testing is, perhaps, the single most important type of research any company ever conducts. Achieving clear-cut product superiority in a category is the surest way to build brand share, engender customer loyalty and boost profitability. Better products tend to command higher prices and be more responsive to advertising investments.”
The site says product testing serves to:
• Achieve product superiority over competitive products;
• Monitor the potential threats posed by competitive products;
• Cost-reduce product formulations and/or processing methods;
• Measure the effects of aging on products (shelf-life studies);
• Monitor product quality from different factories;
• Predict consumer acceptance of new products;
• Determine the optimal set of ingredients or features, given a price point or profit goal.
“I like to say it this way: Open your refrigerator, peer in your pantry, look under your sink, check out your beauty, personal care and health items in your bathroom – these are our clients,” Stapleton adds.
It’s interesting to note what types of items are tested here in Kannapolis. “Wow – so many different products,” Stapleton says. “Chocolate, lip balm, cheese, denture adhesive, fish sticks, lotions, sausage, lawn mowers, snack crackers, coffee, high-end appliances, canned and bottled ice teas, chicken sandwiches, and much more. Our consumer-testing program runs onsite ‘taste’ tests, home-use tests, focus groups to discuss products, and creative ideation sessions.
“In addition to testing with consumers who use certain products, we also have ongoing testing with groups of highly trained evaluators. These panelists work a few hours – three to four days per week – evaluating lotions, body wash, cosmetics, fabrics, salty snacks and other products. They don’t offer opinions on how much they like the products.”
And there are actually professionals educated in this discipline. With undergraduate or post-graduate degrees – and after specific education or training in sensory evaluation and consumer testing – these scientists design the tests.
Spectrum also has a recruitment team that utilizes social media, local events, word-of-mouth, advertising and collaborates with the NCRC to bring in participants. And the compensation for being chosen to sit on a test panel? How about $40 an hour, on average.
But what does Spectrum do with the results of a product test? “We compile and evaluate information from studies to help our clients make a wide range of decisions, including which products to bring to market, how to advertise, and what product features to maximize to make their consumers happy, just to name a few,” Stapleton says.
She also shares that it usually takes longer to find the right consumer demographic to test a particular product than it does to organize the results for the client. Providing them with a report typically takes a few days to a few weeks, depending on the complexity of the test.
An example of an in-house consumer taste test: coffee. The panel is taken to an allocated room at Spectrum, where they are seated in front of a laptop computer.
They’re given three different samples of coffee, numbered for clarification. Each sample is tasted twice, once without any cream or sweetener and once doctored up as the panelist would typically drink it at home. After tasting the product, each person answers a set of questions on his or her laptop. The study takes place during sessions held over a pre-determined number of days.
For more information about Spectrum’s services or to inquire about test panel openings, call 704-250-1200 or visit their website at www.spectrumdiscoverycenter.com.
Since it’s agreed that consumers’ tastes change over time, it’s important to address products both tried-and-true and new to the market.
“Fashion and style trends affect every industry – clothing, shoes, automobiles, foods, lawn mowers, washing machines, jet engines – even though the rate of change varies greatly by industry,” decisionanalyst.com says. “Competitive actions can redefine a product category in a matter of months. That’s why product testing and optimization must be viewed as a strategic, ongoing activity. The human race’s preferences and proclivities are a moving target.”
We asked Stapleton if she could share a particularly successful test. “If I had to choose one, I would say the research we did to help cheese manufacturers understand how they can reduce the amount of salt in some popular cheeses while maintaining the flavor consumers love.”