The long table down the middle was the same one that runs down the middle of any number of conference rooms. The carpeting and three walls were a neutral gray. The fourth wall was mirrors, showing nothing but the 10 of us, all women, all looking a little frazzled at the end of the day, lining up to help ourselves from the deli trays of cold cuts and rolls.
When we'd found our seats, a spatter of conversation started at one end of the table, around a cheerful woman with a sprayed-firm helmet of blond hair. She joked about the people watching us from the other side of the mirror wall. Then she pointed out the microphones on the ceiling.
After that, we stopped talking. We were wondering about the people on the far side of the mirror wall, who could see us while we couldn't see them.
Then a man in suspenders and bow tie came in and sat down at the head of the table. This was Rich, our moderator for the evening. (He never mentioned his last name.) Rich began by telling us it was our opinions that mattered here, not his. Then he asked us to tell our names, our occupations, where we lived, things like that. From there we got down to a discussion of shopping -- what we liked, what we didn't like, whether sales are for real, what about discount stores, and do we go to outlet malls.
We spoke freely. Sometimes we digressed. Sometimes we repeated ourselves. Sometimes the best answers were the ones for which no question had been asked. It was fascinating. Letting people freely discuss mundane things can reveal feelings that are anything but mundane.
Eventually Rich told us our group was sponsored by Chesapeake Village, an outlet center in Perryville, and showed us some of its ads. We discussed the ads. We studied a brochure. We joked about how we'd be seeing each other in Perryville on Saturday.
Finally Rich told us good night. And it was only as we were shrugging into our coats and filing out of the room that we noticed the mirror wall again.
THAT'S THE WAY IT USUALLY is in groups like this.
The "respondents" in a "focus group" (marketing jargon for the participants in the kind of group described above) tend to get so interested in their discussions that they forget all about the "back room," the marketing vice presidents watching them from the other side of the mirror.
The people in the back room, though, aren't likely to forget what's going on with the people they're watching: They're paying as much as $5,000 for the privilege of sitting there and learning how a group of consumers feels about the product or service they're trying to sell, and why they feel that way.
It's very valuable information to marketers, advertisers, manufacturers and anybody else with something to sell. If you understand how consumers feel and why they feel that way, the reasoning goes, then you'll know how to sell to them.
And that's why focus groups have been increasingly used over the last few years. And why now they're used to figure out how to sell not only things like soaps and soups and Saabs, but also less tangible products -- products like hospital services and presidential platforms and even strategies in jury trials.
Thus lawyers used a focus group to try out the defense strategies they'd worked out for former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham and his brother, who were charged with failure to disclose a $350,000 campaign loan. The focus group thought the strategy favored by the lawyers was ridiculous, and favored instead a completely different strategy. That strategy was used in the actual trial, and the Mechams were acquitted.
In the political arena, as a result of attitudes revealed in a New Jersey focus group, George Bush's campaign planners chose to use TV ads linking Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis with criminal Willie Horton -- and many observers believe those ads won Mr. Bush the election.
So focus groups, for all that they are often made up of ordinary people, have effects that are anything but ordinary: They can affect not only what you eat and wear and drive, not only what charity you choose or what hospital you take your child to, but even how you judge and how you vote.
THE MAJORITY OF FOCUS groups, though, still have some connection with selling products, the kind that comes in boxes and bags with a visible price tag attached.
"We do focus groups pretty routinely," says Lisa Quier, vice president and director of marketing for the McArthur/Glen Group, which owns the Perryville outlet center for which the group described at the beginning of this story was held.
Her objective is to learn what type of consumer likes outlets, why they shop, "how the whole outlet format fits into their scheme of things," she explains. "Basically we just try to keep an ongoing dialogue with the consumers."
Ms. Quier also looks for "hot buttons," issues that make consumers get excited. The way outlet discounts are advertised, for example.