What you see is what you buy

Posted by Oliver Koll on Feb 18, 2021

Walk in for a pack of milk only and leave the store with lots of other things. Visual focus explains why such unplanned purchases happen. When this focus is narrow, we tend to see much less of a shelf (and hence the assortment) than when it is broad where we end up buying more. A recent scientific study shows this effect and how shoppers’ visual focus can be narrowed or broadened by in-store communication.

In a series of studies, the researchers first manipulated the breadth of attention of shoppers with the help of digital displays. For a broad focus, a sequence of product images was shown on the outer edges of a screen. For a narrow focus the same images appeared in the center of the screen. Before entering the store, shoppers recorded their planned purchases which were compared to their actual purchases to evaluate the degree of unplanned buying.

  • The study’s results show that shoppers with broad visual attention bought substantially more unplanned items than shoppers with narrow attention.
  • This effect was also shown for product categories further away from the shop’s entrance. So broad attention does not disappear quickly and is equally helpful for categories that are purchased frequently (e.g., dairy) and infrequently (e.g., canned food).
  • Impulsive shoppers show a higher tendency for unplanned purchases because their attentional focus is easier to manipulate compared to non-impulsive shoppers.

For retailers, activating consumers’ broad visual attention is an effective means to stimulate instore exploration and triggers needs that were not top-of-mind when entering the store. Shoppers who want to stick with what was planned: have your shopping list ready.

Source: Streicher, M. C., Estes, Z. and Büttner, O. B. (2020). Exploratory Shopping: Attention Affects In-store Exploration and Unplanned Purchasing. Journal of Consumer Research.