At the recent Casual Furniture Show in Chicago, I attended a Q&A featuring a panel of consumers. It was fascinating.

The four women were average Midwesterners ranging in age from their early 30s to late 50s. They were friendly, but not particularly insightful or articulate. The only reason they were on the panel was because they liked to shop and had purchased backyard furniture at some point in their lives.

The moderator introduced them to the audience made up of mostly retailers. Now here’s the interesting part: Before the floor was even formally open for questions, the attendees, myself included, began waving their hands hoping to be called on as quickly as possible.

The questions came fast and furious.

“When choosing backyard furniture, do you look for specific brands?”

“Why might you go to a specialty store rather than a big box?”

“Do you research furniture on the Internet before visiting a retailer?”

“What types of advertising do you pay attention to when shopping for your backyard?”

The women answered each question, carefully explaining their personal habits and preferences. Their responses were virtually identical to what any consumer might say on any given day in any given store.

And that’s what I found so odd. The retailers in the audience had taken time away from their businesses to eagerly question a group of people that, as far as I could tell, were exactly like the shoppers they had just left behind.

Clearly, it would have been more productive for them to just ask their own customers about buying habits, and spend the extra hour walking the show floor.

But while it’s obvious in retrospect, at the time, I was right there raising my hand like everyone else. The experience teaches two valuable lessons: First, be skeptical. Just because there’s a podium and moderator doesn’t mean the people talking are any more knowledgeable than you are. Second, the consumers who visit your store (or, in my case, the readers who enjoy Pool & Spa News) are a treasure trove of important information.

You don’t have to go to Chicago to find it.

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Erika Taylor