FEATURE29 July 2014

Aisle be seeing you

I could be mistaken for a teenage boy in a high street chemist, standing with a rucksack on my back and casting furtive glances at a display of hair gel.

But I’m not out shopping, and I'm definitely not a sixteen-year-old. I’m at the London offices of Perception Research Services (PRS), trialling a pair of Mobile Eye-tracking glasses; the rucksack I’m wearing holds a laptop (wired up to the glasses), and the hair gel is on a shelving unit of products used as props to demonstrate the technology.

The eye-tracking glasses, which resemble lab safety goggles, are equipped with three cameras: two that focus on my eyes and one trained straight ahead, in the direction of my gaze.

Shopping mission

Prior to entering the mock-up shop area, eye-tracking specialist and PRS associate Mark Denye had me stand facing a wall marked with several numbered squares and look at them in turn, according to his instructions. He used this information to calibrate the glasses to make sure they were accurately detecting the focus of my gaze. The goggles had been fastened with a toggle at the back of my head to stop them from moving around and ensure the measurement remains as accurate as possible.

While the products I’m looking at are safely within PRS’s office, respondents taking part in real studies using the glasses are sent out to shop in the real world.

“We tend to give people a mission to complete while they’re in the shop,” explains Grant Montague, PRS’s European vice president. “We ask them to shop in the normal way they would do a grocery shop, assuming they’ve got a certain budget. We let them be as free as possible, but we’ll have asked them to buy some specific items: let’s say, some orange juice, some flour and a bag of crisps. It’s important to mask what specific category we’re looking at by giving them a number of specific products to purchase.”

My mission was simple: to walk to the next room (without breaking anything) and look at a shelving unit of hair products. Straightforward though this task may seem, I tread very carefully – well aware that I’m carrying thousands of pounds worth of equipment on my face. After getting distracted by a display of stock cubes en route, I reach the shelving unit and scan the hair products, picking up a few items and trying to act as if I were truly considering a purchase.

Looking good

After a minute or so of browsing I go back to the other room. Denye does a quick re-calibration (to account for any movement in the goggles during my shopping adventure) and it’s time to examine the footage, which is available instantly. What we see is high quality film of the entire scene that I had been presented with, plus a small blue circle moving around on top of the footage, signifying where my gaze fell during the journey. I can see that my eyes were drawn to brands I often purchase, as well as bright colours and large lettering (I also note that I was briefly distracted by a joystick on a shelf as I walked back into the calibration room, but hope nobody else picks up on this).

During the course of a normal project, researchers will review results with respondents in order to gain an insight into what the footage is showing.

“We ask extensive questions around their behaviour – why they did certain things; what they noticed; why they did or didn’t spend time looking at certain products,” says Montague.

The team can also produce a heat map laid over still images, in order to record the areas of a static display that got most attention throughout an experience.

And while interactions with brands will differ, Montague explains, there are some trends that are category-wide. Personal care purchases (like the hair products I was looking at) will be more considered than a staple product, such as canned goods, for example. Different shopper segments will also play a part: brand-loyal shoppers shop in a very different way to those that are more preoccupied with getting the best deal. I consider how my eye-tracking footage might have differed if I’d been running the gauntlet of the ‘reduced’ aisle, with its distracting little yellow stickers. Oh, the thrill of a bargain.

Regardless of the type of shopper or the brand category, the experience brings to light how your eyes can be drawn to things without your brain consciously registering (joysticks!) and just how much there is to see and consider when doing something as simple as choosing a bottle of shampoo.

“It’s easy for brands to lose sight of their customers and the experience they have in store,” Montague says. “This technology puts them in the shoes of the shopper.”

2 Comments

6 years ago

"Straightforward though this task may seem, I tread very carefully - well aware that I’m carrying thousands of pounds worth of equipment on my face" - therein lies the rub: can eye-tracking yet be considered a 'natural' shop? With several recalibration pit-stops, can we really rely on eye-tracking as a reflection of normal shopping behaviour? I guess the key is placing it in the context of other methodologies and using it as support or as a hypotheses generator.

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6 years ago

I completely agree with the previous comment on the 'natural' aspect of eye-tracking. The same holds true for the whole emerging domain of neuroscience. Do we actually believe a consumer to behave normally when he/she is aware that they are strapped with nodes on their heads to capture their brain stimuli?

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