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Think back to the last time you went for a job interview. You probably gave yourself a good scrub, got into one of your best outfits, brushed your hair, clipped your nails and did whatever you could to look your best. Why? So that you looked a certain way, gave off a certain impression and stood out from your competing interviewees. For brands and the products they sell, every single second is an interview. From wanting to be ‘hired’ by a new consumer, to having to reapply for their ‘role’ with a current customer, it should be a simple case of what you select being right for the job you need it to do. Unfortunately, us humans are a bit more shallow when it comes to employing the brands we use. Although your mother always told you never to judge a book by its cover, I’m sorry to tell you that when it comes to shopping, you’ve been ignoring her almost since the moment you were born. How do we know this? We can see it in your eyes!

It is widely accepted that asking shoppers why they select the products they do is a waste of time. For the most part, shoppers simply don’t know how or why they made their decisions. While shoppers continue to roam on autopilot, stores are taking the initiative and seeing if they can get to the bottom of it, to keep the balance of power in the decision making process in their favour. As usual, technology is leading the way as they go in search of answers.

Eye tracking technology has been around for a long time in psychology, behavioural analysis and the military sector but has only recently exploded on to the mainstream. The advances in relevant technology, the reduction in the cost of equipment and company’s like Google experimenting with products such as Google Glass, have helped the practice reach the masses. Where it’s really seeing a rise in popularity however, is product design and the marketing of those products.

Eye tracking software actually tracks where the wearer of the accompanying headset is looking. So you can immediately understand the potential of such technology. It provides a unique insight (pun intended) into how shoppers navigate your store and the aisles in it. ‘Neuromarketing’ is allowing researchers to physically see what consumers see when they browse a shelf and then work out what it is they actually look for in a product. From the visual cues in packaging that consumers actually react to, to physical attraction to a product and even stages of the decision making process, researchers, brands and retail advertising specialists are building up a mine of information. They now have the ability to quantify the success of a given product in terms of actual visual attention it receives and this information is revolutionising your place on the shelf.

So what is the technology telling us?

A product’s shelf position and appearance are key to engaging shoppers. A number of different eye tracking studies, including ones carried out by America’s Kelley School of Business, Germany’s Information Resources Inc. and author Scott Young, found some expected and some unexpected results.

How important is your place on the shelf?

• Products are noticed within 10 seconds, the key window for purchase choice
• Neat shelves improve brand findability, while messy shelves turn shoppers off
• It is still very true that ‘unseen is unsold’
• Angled shelves that allow products to slide forward, increase sales.

What packaging says to people

• Consumers are attracted to functional, novel and clever packaging ideas
• Shoppers will actually spend more on unique, impressive packaging
• The quality of the product is often determined by the quality of the packaging
• Packaging must be properly sealed and undamaged to even be considered.

The role of Point Of Sale marketing

• Distinctive shelf signs and product displays really draw shoppers’ attention
• Shoppers with a picture of a desired product in mind, find it quicker
• The 1st, 2nd and 3rd tiers at POS receive the most visual attention
• Preempting via displays, strategic shelving and digital signage is critical.

How this helps us understand the retail environment

Eye tracking research had a big part to play in discovering that our subconscious opinions on packaging are having a devastating affect on food waste. Every year, Australians waste about $10 billion worth of vegetables that are rejected for one simple, and silly, reason – their undesirable appearance. We’re actually looking right past perfectly good food and disregarding it in our droves. A Cannes Gold Lion is the leading award bestowed on the best advertising campaigns from around the world. Last year, one was given to a simple campaign about ugly vegetables. The French campaign included images of a ridiculous potato, a disfigured eggplant and an ugly carrot. It was a powerful way of heroing perfectly edible food that is frequently tossed out. Similar promotions highlighting such an unnecessary waste are springing up across Europe after research showed that they throw 300 million tons of food away each year. These figures have led the European Union to make 2014 the year against food waste. For the first time, shoppers are about to be judged for judging a book by its cover.

You’d have to have been living under a rock not to have noticed the rise in popularity of smaller boutique stores and even temporary pop-up shops. You’ll also have noticed the rise in Australia of German chain Aldi. That’s because eye tracking has had a hand is discovering that people actually switch off when they are presented by too much choice. As the bigger chain stores have continued to grow in size, their offerings have expanded and shoppers have actually become overwhelmed. So much choice and so little free time leads to shoppers tuning out and defaulting to the more familiar brands. In some cases, time-poor shoppers are even grabbing the first brand they see. That’s one of the reasons Aldi stocks less products and less brand variations of them.

According to the Wall Street Journal, eye tracking results actually led Unilever to redesign the packaging for their Axe body wash bottle. They changed its shape from curvy to straight, redesigned the label on the front to make it more visible and increased the font size of the product description. Eye tracking even led them to recommend that retailers use angled shelves to allow products to slide forward and constantly face the front. Apparently it worked! One retailer recorded a sales increase of 3.5%.

What you can do

Eye tracking research is far more available than it was even ten years ago. If you can afford it and if you think it would be worth it, do consider it. If you can’t, you can still ensure that your products are well packaged, clearly labelled, always in tip-top condition and have a good clear shelf position. And if you’re the one that owns the store the shelves are in, make sure they’re always tidy, clearly signed and consider bringing in some digital signage to help you promote the brands that are willing to pay you to do so. One thing is for sure though and that’s that you are a shopper of some description. So next time you’re out in the aisles, take a little bit more time to consider what you’re seeing and see if you can shake up your shopping habits every now and again. Because you never know what you’ve been missing…