Garbology Market Research: Is it Effective? by: FKMensah

Competition in the consumer goods market has become more intense over the past decade. There are many reasons for this competitiveness in this industry but the most talk about is globalization. In this new age of internet and technological advancement consumers now have more choices when it comes to purchasing household consumable products among many other items they use on a daily basis. Gone were the days when a consumer only has to run to the convenient store in the neighborhood to buy items. The internet has now made it easier and presented many alternatives and choices for the consumer. Typical consumers who use to go to the grocery store now have a choice of just having to order groceries over the internet and have it delivered to their homes.i,e. Shoprite.  This has created a marketing environment where companies do whatever it took to have such consumers become aware of their products and brands that may not even be at every store in a community.

Companies have long been faced with the difficulty of being able to particularly define their customers’ purchasing and consumption patterns. This has led to marketers exploring all marketing strategies available to them to capitalize on the consumption patterns of their customers.  They use brand engagement platforms like social media to not only create awareness of their products, but also engage consumers of their products through comments made about their products by these consumers– which is a huge trend in this modern era in marketing. One other trend that has been explored but not increasingly popular is Garbological marketing research—when people in a neighborhood place their trash outside their homes for pickup, and a marketing researcher sorts through the garbage as part of a brand-preference survey. To a marketing staff or firm, such consumption patterns or information revealed in this research could guide them by providing first-hand knowledge of what customers in this particular area are willing to spend money on, and what products will not sell.

ImageA garbological study, in relation to marketing is an observation technique which adapts the process in which a researcher combs through people’s trash to assess the things they’ve consumed… (Hyman, Sierra 2010).  During a garbology study in Tucson, a survey found that all Hispanic women in the area did not use bottled baby food. However, it was discovered through the analysis of these women’s garbage that they used just as much prepared baby food as other households within the region. Thus, through studying garbage we can analyze the belief system surrounding food consumption (Rathje, Murphy 2001).  A marketer’s ability to have a first-hand knowledge of what products and how often consumers go through a product in a period through these marketing research means can add to the mitigation of the complex customer consumption pattern. Obviously, one may see this type of research as an over stretch and going too far but in this competitive global market having a slight edge over a competitor does go a long way to capturing or increasing a company’s market share.

Others have argued that there is a downside to this garbology marketing research, thus, violates respondents’ privacy (unless they’ve consented to sharing their trash for this purpose). This is a strong argument against the concept. After all is not that easy to walk in neighborhoods dressed on “research gown” scouting through one trash after the other without either being questioned by owners of these trash cans or even being perceived as some sort of “lunatic” or “spy”.  But having these individual trash owners understand your quest and reasons for this unusual act and persuading them of the benefits of your research to them could be very useful—this is where marketers need to define their marketing objective and also determining what information is needed and how that information can be obtained efficiently and effectively.

The goal of competitive intelligence is to provide a reliable and effective information that is mostly backed by facts to support the decision making process of a business in a competitive or non-competitive market, on the other hand, garbology market research and the “dirty” business of competitive intelligence and a company’s ability to acquire first-hand knowledge of consumer consumption habits maybe what makes trash searching legal in some sense, at least market researchers do not have to trespass on private property or even grabbing those trash bags before it hits the pavement. Some lawyers and strategic intelligence professionals like Richard Horowitze has argued this as the legality of dumpster diving for research intelligence purposes. Regardless of its legality, there is the another task of being able to either talk to the right consumer whose permission you may need to search their trash or finding the right neighborhood or consumer segment that may have the right “trash” to solidify your market research—whether or not those consumers use the types of product pertaining to the research. This is where market research and competitive intelligence come into play.

 There is a clear distinction between garbology/ market research and competitive intelligence—Competitive Intelligence is not about talking to lots of people or in this case going through every single trash in a particular neighborhood, it is about talking to the right people or looking through the right trash. When conducting Competitive Intelligence, if three reliable sources give you the same answer to a question, then the intelligence is considered triangulated and the analyst moves on to the next question. While Market Research generally focuses on customers, gathers information by surveying lots of people, usually customers, in order to gather their opinion and insights on certain topics. Once the survey is complete, analysts apply various tools and techniques to extrapolate the data and postulate on its meaning.

Even though there may be a fine line between the legal and illegal aspects of this garbology research methodology, I do believe that the end result is what justifies garbology market research as either an effective or ineffective tool, and since many consumer goods companies have tried it and may still be using it tells of its existence as a useful marketing research tool.


Michael Hyman, PhD, Jeremy Sierra, PhD “Marketing Research Kit For Dummies” John Wiley & Sons, Mar 5, 2010 – Business & Economics

Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy  2001 Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage. Harper Collins. New York

Karl Moore, Niketh Pareek ,Routledge, Nov 24, 2009 – Business & Economics

Heath Gross, Market Research and Competitive intelligence. Accessed 1/1/14. <;



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s