UWM anthropologist takes research to Kohl’s

In the past decade, shopping has changed substantially. Online retailers are dominating many markets, making malls less captivating and leading stores like JCPenney and Macy’s to close up shops. So how does the popular retail chain Kohl’s stay ahead of the curve without becoming irrelevant?

For one thing, Kohl’s established a Customer Insights Team, including Senior Consumer Insights Analyst Karen Esche-Eiff.

Esche-Eiff is a PhD candidate in UWM’s Department of Anthropology. She has MS and PhD experience designing and carrying out research projects, such as studying the language of Malayalam in India. Esche-Eiff’s journey to Kohl’s began shortly after completing her PhD fieldwork. With her passion for empirical research, she started searching for new ways to practice her skills.

That led her to the Kohl’s corporate headquarters in Menomonee Falls, Wisc., where she was hired primarily because of her qualitative research skills.

“I would tell any one of my peers that if you produced research for your thesis, use that, leverage it,” Esche-Eiff said. “I took my thesis into [hiring] interviews and said, ‘This is what I can do, this is what I’ve proven I can do.’”

Esche-Eiff’s job involves using qualitative and quantitative research methods to form a comprehensive understanding of Kohl’s customers. While collaborating with fellow members of an interdisciplinary team, she studies who customers are, what their everyday lives look like, and how their shopping behaviors change over the course of different life stages or at different times of the year. This is especially important during the holiday season when business is booming.

Esche-Eiff makes frequent use of surveys and analytics from areas like sales and social media. While numbers are important to advising any business, numbers cannot tell all the layers of what it means to be a wife, husband, mom, dad, etc. Especially in today’s competitive retail environment, understanding and speaking to customers’ lives is imperative. Her preferred research method for this is to use classical ethnographic methods, the study of people and their culture.

“Any time there is an opportunity to stay with a [customer’s] family and be with them from breakfast to dinner, I jump on it,” Esche-Eiff said. “To see the family dynamic and partake in that dynamic is something I really enjoy doing. This helps lead to a compelling story for the angle that I’m trying to prove.”

On a typical day, Esche-Eiff has multiple projects running. They range from measuring a marketing campaign’s performance to exploring new ways for the company to impact communities through its Kohl’s Cares Program. Although varied, all of her projects end up looping back to the customer. Her aim is to make sure that Kohl’s communication, products, and experiences reflect what is important to the people who have grown to rely on the company.

Admittedly, this is a tall order, and it comes with its fair share of difficulties. For example, Esche-Eiff’s business partners might expect her research to say one thing only to find it tells a different story.

“When the results aren’t what corporate expected, it can actually be more of a hurdle than the research itself,” Esche-Eiff said. “Thankfully, my business partners are very customer-first and will try to find a way to implement that research. This takes a while, but it’s worth it.”

Despite any difficulties that she might encounter, Esche-Eiff finds her job rewarding.

“The best part about my job is being able to utilize the [research] methods that I’ve been schooled into and, when I shop at Kohl’s, I get to see someone’s life being made easier by a change that my team implemented,” Esche-Eiff said. “It’s very satisfying.”

-Zachary Julius