Study Sees Through the Grocery Shopper's Eyes

Because it is impossible to get inside the mind of a shopper, a team of researchers settled for the next best thing: to see what the shopper sees, in this case by using video cameras to observe grocery shopping from the shopper’s point-of-view.

The University of Pittsburgh study, believed by its authors to be the first of its kind, used real-time visual evidence, combined with shopping surveys, to determine what factors influence shoppers’ unplanned purchases in grocery stores. Retailers want to know what happens inside a store to sway shoppers from "Maybe I'll buy this" to actually buying a product, a situation Procter & Gamble calls the "first moment of truth."

The study discovered that unplanned purchases tend to complement planned purchases. For example, a person with sour cream on his shopping list is more likely to consider buying shredded cheese. In addition, shoppers are more likely to make unplanned purchases if they do the following: stand closer to the shelf display, touch the product more often, ask questions of grocery store staff while considering a product, and refer back coupons or in-store circulars. Surprisingly enough, while promotions were effective in catching a shopper's attention, they had little effect on increasing the likelihood of an “unplanned consideration” converting into an unplanned purchase.

“Retailers and companies who sell their products through retailers can use these findings to improve the shoppability of their stores and increase basket size,” says study co-author, J. Jeffrey Inman, the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business Albert Wesley Frey Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty. For more than two decades, Inman has advanced the field of shopper marketing through innovative research on in-store budgets, product packaging, display placements, consumer eating habits, and more.

The paper, “Deconstructing the ‘First Moment of Truth': Understanding Unplanned Consideration and Purchase Conversion Using In-Store Video Tracking,” was published in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. The paper's additional authors were Sam K. Hui of New York University’s Stern School of Business; Yanliu Huang of Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business; and Jacob Suher, a doctoral student with the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business.

Observing Shopping From the First-Person View

The study group involved 237 shoppers from a grocery store in a northwestern U.S. city. The shoppers wore a portable video camera that was affixed to their head like a Bluetooth headset, thus recording their field of vision

Shoppers first completed a survey in which they identified all the products they planned to purchase during the trip, as well as indicating if they were using a shopping list, the amount of their total shopping budget, and their familiarity with the store, among other questions. Then after completing the shopping trip, shoppers completed another survey and the shopper's receipt was collected from the grocery store's transaction log.

"This methodology is the gold standard for in-store research. Matching shoppers’ actual purchases against their pre-shop plans enables us to most accurately ascertain which purchases were unplanned," Inman says.

Additionally, the study found that:

  • Unplanned purchase considerations tend to happen later in shopping trips and are most likely to occur in the aisles.
  • The most frequent unplanned purchase category is "guilty pleasure" products, with chocolate a primary offender.
  • If a shopper considers making an unplanned purchase but decides against it, the shopper is more likely to make an unplanned purchase on the next unplanned consideration.
  • A shopper's decision time for an unplanned purchase is longer than for an item on the shopping list, about 16 more seconds on average.
  • At the time of unplanned purchase consideration, a shopper's average amount of in-store slack (the shopper’s mental budget for unplanned purchases) is $11.
  • Shoppers are more likely to make unplanned purchases if they look at fewer products in the category, as too many similar products divert shoppers' attention.

"There is a saying in retailing that, ‘Unseen is unsold.' We find that almost two-thirds of the unplanned considerations ultimately converted into an unplanned purchase. This finding implies a new twist on this retailing adage that, ‘Seen is two-thirds sold,’" Inman says.

New Technology to Get Closer Still to Mind's Eye of Shopper

Inman recently received a $20,000 grant from the Marketing Science Institute to continue his research with video cameras. The next project will utilize cutting-edge eye-tracking equipment to follow a shopper's exact focus point. The previous study captured only a shopper's approximate field of vision.

”We have high hopes for this new project. We think that it could be the atom cracker in the field of understanding the drivers of in-store decision making,” Inman says.

Both projects are quantum leap forward in terms of capturing in-store, real-time product considerations. Past academic research relied on surveys and scanner data, which do not record what happens during the shopping trip, or on discreetly shadowing shoppers in store, which is costly and oftentimes yields inaccurate observations.