On October 23–26, I was stationed at Robinsons Supermarket at Forum Robinsons (in Mandaluyong) as a member of an experimental auction team (with a sensory evaluation component in it). This activity, a component of a brainchild hatched by Matty and me last year (when I was still a postdoc fellow) finally started becoming a reality in the Philippines! We had first tested the idea purely through sensory evaluation activities during Madrid Fusìon Manila. What made the latest activity doubly exciting was that this was our first experiment in an urban shopping mall (our sincerest and most heartfelt thanks to Robinsons Malls for partnering with us on this) and our first test of a novel variation of the Becker-DeGroot-Marschak auction (devised by Matty)... and one more thing, this was the first time that I acted as animator in an experimental auction!
Members of the team who made this experimental auction possible was Anna de Guia, a MSc student in UPLB whose research topic was about the "non-use value" of heirloom rice... and she did the liaising work with Robinsons; Lucy Samadio, a technician at the Grain Quality and Nutrition Centre who's been assigned to assist me in my experiments; Mike Guay, a MSc graduate from McGill University and whose expertise is in crunching data from experimental auctions; and Xel Ancheta, who's into development communications in UPLB.
We started "backstage", well, the receiving dock for our materials. We brought the Market Research Team's booth, several kilograms of rice, and the Market Research Team's copy of the Sensory Evaluation Team's traveling circus kit: rice cookers, extension cords, travel boxes, cups, spoons, scoops, plates, bowls...
The staff at Robinsons Supermarket kindly helped us unload the stuff from the van and deliver them to the bundling area where our stuff would be put in storage for the rest of the weekend.
On the shop floor, we had help from our driver, Kuya Dennis, in reconstructing the booth by the health and wellness section of the supermarket. With so many hands on deck, I found myself with nothing to do but take photos. I had never felt so lazy in preparing for an event! Honestly, I wasn't used to having such a big team there to get organised. Back in the day, Lenie and I set up the rice tasting area by ourselves in Eastwood (International Rice Festival) and at the Asian Development Bank (World Food Day) because the others were prepping the other bits of the IRRI exhibits. Then, in Asia Society's event where I did the rice tasting activity, Chill and I were assisted by staff from Asia Society in getting the IRRI booth set up. During the International Rice Congress in Bangkok, I did the rice tasting booth prep, the cooking, the clean-up all by myself... with Communications staff helping me out if they're not occupied by their assignments. Therefore, watching the others do all the prep made me feel like a useless member of the group.
I still found myself with nothing much to do because Ate Lucy took care of mise-en-place. Xel and Anna took charge of prepping the booth. Matty and Mike went off to buy an extra table for the post-auction survey transactions. I found myself just standing or walking around, checking if the booth wasn't cluttered or going through the questionnaire to check if we might have missed questions (as if we could do anything about it at that point).
I never expected that this weekend would prove to be one of the most tiring work weekends I've had in recent times... right up there with the International Rice Congress...
As soon as the rice started cooking, it was just a waiting game for us. The time that we've practised long and hard for (and the cause of nausea for the two unfortunate iPhone 6's from all those endowment simulations) was rapidly approaching... and I drew the short end of the stick. I got first dibs at being animator. A task that we prepared for because Matty was flying off to India in the middle of the experiment and he wanted someone with, what he describes as, a "strong" personality to handle the animation as Plan B... Which became Plan A.
Three hours after we began the experimental auctions, we realised that we were going through a learning curve: Mike's recruiting skills were starting to get honed; my animation skills were getting a lot of practice. We realised quickly that the words that we used had to be carefully chosen and repeated across respondents to avoid results being affected by the variations of what we said. If a plan didn't work out, we needed to approach it in a different way. It was good that Matty and I went through several scenarios during months of rehearsals because I wanted to understand how the auction works, and to know how far the stories could be changed and what to do when certain responses came up. On the other hand, we also had to learn how to use a vacuum sealer... They learned how to operate it. I never had a chance to use it.
The first day of the experimental auctions ended ten hours after we've begun. We interviewed 30 shoppers that day... if I'm not mistaken, I was averaging 15 minutes per auction. We were all well-rested over the lunch break. Not bad, I thought. But to get to our target number of respondents, we had to up our game.
We aimed to have shorter auctions (I was doing it at 11 minutes by the end of the second day, I think) and faster recruiting times. We did get 36 respondents. Good job! we all thought. However, I was starting to feel exhausted from standing and talking THE WHOLE DAY. Mike's recruiting skills were getting so good that right after I've handed off a respondent to Xel for the post-auction survey, I'd turn around and see Mike's next recruit! There was minimal lag time and so I only had a few seconds to rest my voice. By then, Mike placed me on constant supply of throat lozenges, thank goodness! All I wanted to do, by the time we called it a day, was find a chair and take my weight off my feet for a few minutes. Matty, on the other hand, came better prepared as the documentations guy. The GoPro Session was placed in strategic spots to capture the auctions... and then I got nudged and pushed here and there to keep me within view of the camera. Tsk.
By this day, we were all in the groove, so to speak. Matty, Mike, and I still had to iron out tweaks in the animator's and recruiter's scripts... Matty was flying out at noon so we had to squeeze as many insights from him as possible that would help us improve the experimental auctions. I was only able to slash 1 minute off my average auction time... my overworked throat was forcing me to become more efficient in doing the animation but I couldn't shorten my spiel any further without cutting out major parts of the survey. I knew that my voice was approaching its limits and I had to save whatever's left if I wanted the auction team to finish strong. Anna acted as timekeeper and so we were able to conduct 42 (yes, 42!) auctions by the time the supermarket closed. Still short of the 44 auctions that we were aiming for, but it was the best that we could do.
The last day. It was the If-I-wasn't-doing-the-auction,-I-wasn't-talking day. We had a slow start, methinks, because it was a slow day for the supermarket. The other merchandisers had told us about it previously so we were expecting it. However, we never expected to encounter two (to put it kindly) strange respondents. The first strange respondent didn't finish the auction, as he stormed off in the middle of the sensory evaluation. I had a feeling that he didn't like being a participant in an experiment in which he had to follow instructions, so he opted to explode and then move off. I was actually thankful that he did that because he wouldn't like the auction if he didn't like the rice tasting segment. And so with a smile, I bid him good day and thanked him for participating. The second strange respondent had more of a distracted air around her. She found a friend of hers shopping at the same time and so stopped responding to the survey questions to talk with her friend. After a few minutes, I asked politely if she was still interested in participating in the market study... if I was less polite, I would have told her to bugger off so that the next respondent could start.
By lunch time, I really needed to rest my feet and my throat. I asked (implicitly) if we could take a longer break because I was just ready to drop. I was granted that wish but the Starbucks choco frap was definitely NOT a good idea. If anything, it just accelerated the worsening of my voice.
Not a problem though because the group opted to stop early, after respondent number 28th: we interviewed more people than we originally planned! At last, I could sit down and rest my feet. I was about to talk and then realised that my voice had left the building! Oh no! No matter how many throat lozenges I'd take, my voice wouldn't go back. I really had to rest my throat. But at least my voice faded out after the last auction. Whew!
Packing up proved to be a breeze for me because Mike, Anna, and Ate Lucy did all the heavy lifting (with the help from the supermarket staff). I just sat and kept quiet. I felt, once again, that I was a useless member of the team. But what could I do, right? I was way too exhausted for words.
And that's my work weekend of firsts. It was a good activity: we developed a partnership with one of the major supermarkets in the metro and the lab rat learned a lot about people skills through practice. Now, I'm excited with the results. I'm expecting that we got good results from this experiment. I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed.
Job well done, A(uction)-team!