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A behind-the-scenes look at the consumption team's store inventory process

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Posted: March 25, 2014

Some people might have a preconceived idea of what a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood is like — how it looks, the kinds of foods it stocks, and how well its customers are served. Consumption Team member John Eshleman did, but that was before he became intimately familiar with a tool developed to capture the substantial diversity that exists among food stores.
Community Liaison Monica Kessell conducting a store inventory. Kessell is one of a dozen or so people to conduct the yearly surveys. Credit: Bonnie Parsons

Community Liaison Monica Kessell conducting a store inventory. Kessell is one of a dozen or so people to conduct the yearly surveys. Credit: Bonnie Parsons

"There's actually a pretty wide variation in what these stores can be like," said Eshleman, a doctoral candidate in rural sociology at Penn State. "The store inventory tool is really helpful to get a sense of that variation."

While researchers have used any number of tools to conduct store inventories over the years, Eshleman is referring to the Market Basket Store Inventory survey, which was  developed by members of the Consumption Team to determine the type, quality, and cost of the project's market basket foods that are available to customers in select stores in the eight study locations.

Using this tool, Eshleman and a dozen or so other Consumption Team members, university students, and community liaisons have conducted a detailed store inventory in 17 stores each year since 2012. For each of them, this has meant spending about an hour at the stores in their sites, clipboard in hand, answering several pages of questions about the store's offerings and environment. In addition to identifying the availability of the project's market basket foods, the researchers also document variation among these food items.

After each round of store inventories, the Consumption Team members make a point of talking among themselves to share surprises, complications, or their qualitative reactions to filling out the surveys. For example, Monica Kessell, one of the project’s community liaisons based in Charleston, WV, appreciated the chance to see a store she shops at through a different lens. "It was really interesting to pay attention to the store environment and what the store carries instead of just going in and shopping for what I need," she said. Others shared how valuable it was to work with partners — each completing the inventory and then comparing notes, thus allowing them to clarify any discrepancies they encountered.

This kind of sharing has allowed team members to identify opportunities for improving the survey so as to strengthen its use as a research instrument. For example, now in its second iteration, it was updated to capture store environment measures, like lighting, cleanliness, parking availability, and the number of cash registers. These measures were added as a result of what researchers observed in the stores and learned in a review of existing research on store environment issues.

"The nimbleness of the team to do our best to create a data collection tool like this store inventory is no small thing," said Eshleman. "Because we're using the tools we develop more than once, we can go back and incorporate the data collectors' experiences and work with and adjust the tools. In my mind, that's a major strength of the project."

The data collected from the yearly store inventories will serve multiple purposes. Members of the Distribution Team will use the information to augment their descriptions of the stores in their supply chain case studies. The Consumption Team will use the data to understand the store features and how they factor into customers' perceptions of the stores.