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Wandering glances while shopping can lead to unplanned purchases

Experts encourage consumers to stay focused while doing their holiday shopping this year

Photo (c) Noel Hendrickson - Getty Images
Though many consumers have already gotten a head start on their holiday shopping, a new study is exploring a trend that could lead consumers to make more unplanned purchases. 

According to researchers from the University of Innsbruck, consumers need to keep their focus while shopping if they don’t want to take home any unexpected items. Their study revealed that wandering glances while shopping are the biggest factors in consumers straying from their shopping lists, and many stores use this to their advantage to get shoppers to add more to their shopping carts.

“Over the past decades, retailers have developed many sales strategies that focus on the visual attention of customers,” said researcher Mathias Streicher. “All these strategies maximize the journey through the store and increase the probability to remember a forgotten need or discover a new product.” 

The power of persuasion

To see how powerful it can be to harness consumers’ attention while shopping, the researchers conducted multiple shopping experiments that focused on the difference between narrow and broad focus while participants were shopping. 

Shoppers were shown images of available items on a digital display screen; however, the narrow focus group saw the same images in the middle of the screen while the broad focus group saw different images projected all around the periphery of the screen.  

One test involved participants in a supermarket, with the researchers assessing how far participants walked through the store and whether they were able to stick to their shopping lists. The researchers were interested in the distance travelled throughout the store because they explained that many stores keep essential items far away from the entrance to ensure that customers have to walk through more of the store so they can be enticed to make more purchases

The researchers learned that participants were more likely to peruse more items in the store if they were exposed to them prior to shopping, and this led to twice as many unplanned purchases and much more travel throughout the store.

“In looking at shelves, shoppers always see a subset of the assortment and which subset they see critically depends on their visual attention,” Streicher said. “We were able to show that attentional patterns can be unconsciously broadened or even narrowed down by simple in-store communications.” 

Staying focused in the store

What is Streicher’s advice to help consumers through their holiday shopping? He said it’s important for consumers to have a list on hand and stick to it.

“Our research shows that unplanned purchasing already begins at the level of visual attention,” he said. “To reduce unplanned purchases, it is therefore better to avoid wandering glances in shopping situations -- preferable with the support of a shopping list.” 

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