We recently conducted an online survey on behalf of a national food brand in which we displayed various images of a grocery store’s shelf space and asked consumers to select the product they would purchase from among those shown on the shelves. This project was successful at differentiating consumer choice based on how the products were packaged, and gave our client important information on package design direct from their target consumers.

That project got me thinking about how shelf space is a limited resource, and in some cases purchase decisions are influenced as much by what’s not on the shelf as by what’s on it.

For example, my Yoplait Fruplait yogurt has gone missing. And I blame you, Greek yogurt.

Fruplait is a delicious (to me) yogurt-fruit concoction that’s heavy on the fruit. There are four single servings to a pack and there are four fruit flavors from which to choose.

I had a wonderful relationship with Fruplait up until the time Greek yogurt started hitting the shelves. With Greek yogurt muscling in and shelf space at a premium, suddenly, the number of flavors in a given store was reduced. Then some stores stopped carrying Fruplait. Now, none of the four stores at which I typically shop carries it at all (it’s still available at some retailers).

But Greek yogurt…now that is everywhere. I don’t remember a new product category with such a quick and steep trajectory of taking over shelf space. Clearly half of the yogurt section in the dairy aisle is dedicated to Greek yogurt. And I suppose that’s a good thing… for fans of Greek yogurt.

So what happens when a consumer goes to the shelf to purchase a product, and that product is not there? If it’s me, there’s a lot of pushing around the existing products to see if my product is hiding behind them. Then there’s asking the dairy guy whether there’s some in the back. Once it’s determined that it’s not there, then the real decision has to be made: make a substitution or buy nothing.  And in essence, that’s the question being posed every day by companies faced with whether to phase out a less popular brand or product: what will the consumer who is loyal to that product do instead?

We could replicate this situation in a market research study using the same design we used for the shelf space project. But instead of asking consumers of a product category to choose among various products on the shelf, we would target users of a specific product and present them with a shelf scenario in which their product was not available. Would they choose from the other products?  And if so, would they stick with a product from the same brand/manufacturer? Or would they purchase nothing in that category at all?

I don’t know what type of market research Yoplait did, but I’m fairly certain that Greek yogurt’s popularity was a major factor in its manufacturing decisions. Fortunately for Yoplait, in my case anyway, I switched over to Yoplait Light rather than abandoning the brand in favor of another option.

With my Fruplait decision behind me, I’m now focusing my attention on Blue Bunny. I’m hoping my Caramel Praline Crunch frozen yogurt doesn’t suffer the same tragic fate Fruplait did as the war between Greek vs. traditional frozen yogurt heats up.