Closing the gap

Editor's note: Scott Young is president of Perception Research Services, Fort Lee, N.J.

Marketers are increasingly recognizing the importance of influencing the many purchase decisions made in-store through more effective shopper marketing. In their efforts to “win at retail,” most have quickly learned that observation is the key to understanding the shopping experience. Given the overwhelming amount of product choices, in-store decisions are largely physiological and subconscious: Shoppers are driven by habit – and by what they what they see (and miss) during their trips down the aisle. Thus, asking people direct questions (i.e., How did you decide what to buy?) often elicits logical but misleading answers, because people don’t know exactly how or why they made decisions.

This gap between what shoppers say and what they do led us to explore bringing eye-tracking technology to actual stores. This is done via eye-tracking glasses that create a video of each person’s in-store shopping experience (including his/her focal point), documenting both macro-level behavior (store/aisle navigation) and micro-level actions (readership of packaging and POP materials).

This article shares highlights from three recent studies utilizing eye-tracking in retail stores. It summarizes specific learnings from each study and speaks to how these findings link to larger underlying shopping realities that we’ve seen across studies, categories and countries. Through these examples, we’ll also share tactical insights for enhancing in-store-marketing and discuss recommended applications of in-store eye-tracking.

Case study: Too much choice

Our initial case study involved a frequently-shopped food category: a grocery aisle that many people shop weekly or bi-weekly, as a staple of their diet.

Not surprisingly, our research across numerous retailers and three channels (grocery, mass and club stores) revealed a largely consistent pattern: Shoppers were on autopilot. They typically spent under a minute in the aisle and grabbed a single product. Levels of observed comparison-shopping were remarkably low (about 5 percent). Unfortunately, levels of incremental or unplanned purchases were similarly low, which limited profitability for both manufacturers and retailers.

While some of these findings were obvious through more traditional forms of observation, the eye-tracking revealed a deeper and highly actionable insight: Shoppers were frequently buying the brand they saw first. In other words, shopping in this aisle was not necessarily a matter of people finding “their brand” and putting it in the cart. Instead, shoppers were selecting the first brand (presumably within a set of acceptable brands) that met their primary criteria (flavor, form, etc.).

For many years, we’ve known that retail visibility is a key driver of success (“unseen is unsold”). However, this study took that learning further, by suggesting that preempting competition (via displays, strategic shelving and breakthrough packaging) is critical, particularly in habitual grab-and-go categories.

Of course, this study also ties to a universal shopping reality: The burden of “too much choice.” As categories continue to expand, shoppers everywhere are overwhelmed at the shelf. With hundreds of choices to consider – and limited time available to shop – they instead tune out and default to the familiar (i.e., their regular brand) or the first brand seen, to save both time and aggravation.

As a result, it becomes ever harder for new products to succeed – and for marketers to drive incremental purchases. Indeed, in this particular study, it was telling that we saw the highest degree of unplanned purchases (and comparison-shopping) in the club channel, where the category was far less complex (with larger packages and fewer options).

Case study: The great disconnect

A second study focused on a very different category and shopping experience: a consumer electronics product that was purchased infrequently and required more information and a larger investment.

Here, our research across several countries (the U.S., China and Western Europe) and multiple retail channels focused on a different dynamic: the role of various marketing vehicles and materials along the path to purchase.

As with the earlier example, some findings were quite predictable, most notably the significant role of planning (Internet-based research, publicized discounts, etc.) in influencing or framing the shopping trip. However, even in cases of extensive planning, in-store observation confirmed that these shoppers were comparing products and making decisions in the aisle.

In this case, the eye-tracking documented engagement with different vehicles (packaging, product displays and point-of-sale signage/materials) within the in-store discrimination process. Specifically, we found that, when physical product displays were available (typically in computer superstores), they were nearly always the initial source of attention – and the primary driver of decisions. In these situations, POS displays and packaging were generally relegated to a supporting role (confirming specifications, compatibility, etc.). Meanwhile, in channels without product displays, shoppers typically relied on packaging (rather than POS materials) to compare products.

In fact, we uncovered that shoppers’ engagement with different types of POS varied widely. While some materials (most notably those with unique shapes and appearance) were regularly part of the shopping process, many other forms were consistently ignored – and most likely represented a waste of resources. The primary implication – that it is better to limit and focus in-store marketing efforts (“less is more”) – was quite clear and consistent with what we’ve seen in other studies (at quick-service restaurants, convenience stores and other retail channels).

Observing these technology shoppers also spoke to a larger shopping reality, which we call The Great Disconnect. Across categories, we often find that shoppers come to the shelf thinking in terms of users and usage occasions (Will this product serve my specific need?). In the aisle, however, they frequently encounter a bewildering range of choices that emphasize product forms, features, benefits or sub-brands.

Point-of-sale materials that help bridge this gap – by linking features/benefits to users and usage occasions – are often the most successful in closing the sale (and driving incremental purchases).

Case study: Stopping power = content + store placement

A third study also centered on in-store signage and displays but in the very different context of a popular beverage aisle (in North America and South America). In this heavily-merchandised category, the primary objective was to understand which POP materials were consistently seen and which were ignored.

In this case, the findings highlighted the critical role of store placement and the fact that the location of merchandising can actually be more important than the creative execution. Without question, the clearest and most dramatic learning was that ceiling-based signage was completely ignored: Across dozens of videos, across countries and multiple stores, we did not see a single shopper look upward to engage with overhead promotional signage.

This finding is largely consistent with our experience across studies and retail channels: Shoppers may use ceiling-based materials to guide store navigation but once they are in the aisle, their focus is straight ahead or slightly downward. Thus, point-of-sale materials at eye level or arm level (interspersed with packages) are far more visually impactful than materials above the products.

In addition, the study revealed an interesting disconnect between retail visibility and communication. In fact, several of the ceiling-based signs, which were completely missed by shoppers, were actually among the most compelling to shoppers when they later saw them upon forced exposure. Conversely, some of the most visible displays were not particularly compelling. The implication – and larger reality – is that shoppers aren’t consciously choosing what to look at in-store. Instead, stopping power and in-store visibility is primarily a function of location/placement and contrast (with the surrounding environment) – and we shouldn’t assume that the most compelling displays will be the most visible ones. Therefore, marketers should think of visibility and content as two separate (and equally important) drivers of in-store success. To drive sales, they need to optimize both creative execution and store placement.

Patterns have emerged

Certainly, we’re always cautious about generalizing, as the “right” shopper marketing strategy will inevitably vary by situation. However, across countries, product categories and retailers, several patterns have consistently emerged from our in-store research:

A great deal of POS investment is wasted. As illustrated in the cases above, this is often due to either poor store placement (resulting in limited visibility) or to excessive merchandising (which overwhelms the shopper).

Packaging and displays/signage have different strengths and roles in the shopping process. Displays and signage can be viewed as closer to an extension of advertising, in terms of their ability to drive awareness/attention, to create an emotional connection and convey a single key message. Packaging, as the embodiment of the product, is somewhat more factual and rational in its nature. As shoppers get closer to their actual purchase decision, they are looking for key information and reassurance (i.e., Is this the right product for me?).

Given these realities, marketers and retailers can significantly improve their shopper marketing efforts by keeping a few simple, tactical principles in mind: keep it simple; connect emotionally; work from the floor up (not the ceiling down); surprise and delight (via unique appearances and approaches); facilitate shopping, don’t impede it!

While this last point might be self-evident, it is frequently ignored. We repeatedly come across situations in which signage or shelf-ready displays obstruct packaging (and thus limit information delivery). In a recent study, we saw that shoppers were actively avoiding POS stickers on freezer doors, in their efforts to find the products/packages behind them. Shelf blades were far more effective, as they drew attention and helped shoppers navigate the aisle and didn’t block shoppers’ view of packaging, once they began actively considering products.

Two helpful applications

Across our studies, we’ve identified two helpful applications of in-store eye-tracking: understanding in-store shopping behavior (particularly the role of visibility within the path to purchase) and guiding, assessing and enhancing point-of-sale merchandising (both creative execution and in-store positioning).

We’ve also found eye-tracking useful in helping marketers identify opportunities and guide in-store marketing strategy for alternative retail channels (such as convenience, club stores and traditional trade/kiosks in developing markets).

Finally, we’ve found that eye-tracking can add value in both qualitative and quantitative in-store research studies. In qualitative studies, the shopper videos are a primary output, often illustrating an observed behavior (such as shopper confusion or frustration) in a compelling and visceral manner. In quantitative studies, the value often lies in documenting visibility of specific displays or POS materials, typically via numerical data.

Across studies and applications, the commonality is that giving marketers and designers a shopper’s eye view of the retail world provides them with a better understanding of the shopping experience – and a greater appreciation for the complexity of the retail environment. This insight typically leads to more effective in-store marketing campaigns, based on observed behavior – what shoppers do as opposed to what they say.