Daniel Berkal has a masters degree. Still, last year, he spent time working the graveyard shift at convenience stores in dangerous neighbourhoods in three United States cities.

He never cashed a single paycheque and wore a hidden video camera the whole time. He was trying to better understand shopping habits at these stores for a major advertising firm.

All in a day’s work for this qualitative researcher.

The 31-year-old, who was born in Winnipeg, had early dreams of playing piano for a living.

Realizing that probably wouldn’t work out, he did a degree in psychology at McGill University, and then looked for a career. “I had a very creative streak, but I also wanted to make some money.”

Berkal found a masters program in advertising in Texas and that led to jobs at ad agencies across the United States. Then he met a recruiter who told him he’d perfectly suit research.

Berkal thought that sounded boring. He was wrong — he found himself travelling all over the world and talking to interesting people about why they bought products and how they used them.

Today, with the Toronto company he helped found last year, The Palmerston Group, Berkal continues to travel the world.

He spends 70 per cent of his time on the road and the rest of the time writing reports — often in Toronto coffee shops, which he finds inspiring.

Most of the time, his field work involves running focus groups to find out more about consumer behaviour for his clients, who are mainly advertising agencies and manufacturers. As well, he does home visits to watch people use household gadgets or surf websites.

But sometimes he gets to do research in unconventional ways. “We like to spice it up when a client gives us a challenge.”

For instance, The Palmerston Group was once hired to help a Korean TV manufacturer figure out why its products weren’t selling in North America.

Berkal took a group of engineers from the company to a suburban U.S. home, had them unpack and install a TV, watch a Super Bowl game while eating chicken wings, then play Rock Band — to see for themselves how their customers used the product.

Watching the engineers wailing away at the mic and seeing their “Aha” moment over the sticky remote control — that was pretty good day’s work.