MSU Team Studies Eye Gaze to Predict Consumer Retail Behavior

A team at East Lansing-based Michigan State University is studying how consumers’ sequence of gazes predicts purchasing behavior.
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Tobii eye-tracking glasses
MSU researchers used Tobii eye-tracking glasses to record participants’ eye movement in an effort to study how consumers’ gaze sequence predicts purchasing behavior. // Photo courtesy of Michigan State University

A team at East Lansing-based Michigan State University is studying how consumers’ sequence of gazes predicts purchasing behavior.

The findings of the study, “Seeing Through the Forest: The Gaze Path to Purchase,” were recently accepted for publication in PLOS, a nonprofit, open access publisher focused on advancing research communication in science and medicine.

The MSU effort was co-led by Patricia T. Huddleston, a professor with the department of advertising and public relations,  and Bridget K. Behe, a professor at the department of horticulture.

“Consumers are bombarded with information when they shop, and we were interested in what helps them ‘see through the forest of information’ to make a selection,” says Huddleston. “We investigated a variety of cues to see if the sequence — or order — in which a consumer looked at a display can predict their purchase intention.”

The study began in 2017 after selecting the participants, location, and eye-tracking technology. Participants wore Tobii eye-tracking glasses to record their eye movements and length of gaze. They looked at 12 plant displays of six, 12, or 24 common flowering plants, each separated by a black cloth partition in a lab setting.

Researchers configured displays in different ways including flat or tiered. Signs were displayed with varying levels of information cues, such as product information and pricing. Participants were asked which plant they would buy from each display, or if they would not buy a plant at all. Then the 92 participants completed an online survey that provided demographic data, self-reported and actual product knowledge, and past purchase information.

“Previous research by other teams showed that if you look more at a product, you’d be more likely to buy it,” says Huddleston. “We showed that it isn’t just looking longer, but a sequence of gazes that helps us predict what a consumer will buy.”

She noted that while it’s not surprising that prediction accuracy was higher for simpler displays, the findings suggest that offering fewer options makes it easier for consumers to decide on a product.

Plans for follow-up research have been temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic. Like the current study, support for follow-up research will come from the USDA-Federal State Marketing Improvement Program, Horticultural Research Institute, and MSU’s Project GREEEN.

The study is available here.

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