EXPERT COLUMN: Beyond Eye Level


Research has proven that most purchase decisions are made inside the store. Even though people often come to the grocery store with a vague list such as “milk, cheese, chips,” it isn’t until they’re inside that they actually make decisions about which brands they want to buy.

With this knowledge in hand, most manufacturers aim to place their products as close to eye-level as possible. After all, studies have shown that people’s eyes are naturally drawn straight ahead as they walk up and down the aisles.

However, the truth can be much more complicated than that. Yes, people start out by looking at eye-level, but they don’t keep their eyes there indefinitely. Nor are people walking in front of each display and staring directly ahead of them. Instead, they are often looking out of their peripheral vision or quickly sweeping their eyes up and down an aisle as they search for their intended purchase. In other words, eye-level is not the only gold-standard that should be applied when manufacturers are seeking the best location for their product.

What the Case Study Revealed

In an attempt to get a better handle on how people really shop, InContext Solutions set up a virtual simulation that would allow us to gauge exactly where people look when they gaze at a store’s shelves. Here’s what we found:

First of all, it’s true that almost everyone looked at the eye-level shelf first. However, shelf location wasn’t the only factor that drew customers’ eyes. In a study involving a cheese display, we found that people overwhelmingly were drawn to products with blue packaging, much more so than products with green or maroon packaging. This isn’t simply because blue is an appealing color, but because Kraft Foods has traditionally packaged its products in blue wrapping. Since many people immediately associate Kraft with cheese, it’s no wonder that they subconsciously hunt for blue packaging when they’re seeking cheese.

Not only does this mean that products with blue packaging got the most attention from cheese shoppers, it means that all of the products near the blue packaging also got attention. In other words, it’s not only important how manufacturers package their products, but also how their competitors choose to package products, particularly those that they’re close to on the shelves.

The blue packaging discovery also offers an important opportunity for shopper intervention. To draw people in and keep their attention once they see a blue package, an in-store salesperson could use an eye-grabbing display employing the color blue to easily capture the gaze of potential consumers in this section. Offering cheese samples in the aisle would also capture sales before the packaging on the shelf can catch customer attention.

The cheese study also showed us that people tend to look up to the right-hand corner after they first look at eye-level. This suggests that the upper right-hand corner is another prime position for someone looking to gain almost immediate attention for a product.

However, eye-level and upper eye-level shelving isn’t always the best bet. It really depends on the product you’re selling, or so we discovered from our yogurt display test. Time and time again, we found that people were looking down when they were examining yogurt displays. Even when we moved products around the shelves (such as putting Fage on an eye-level shelf), people continued to look downward when hunting for yogurt. Perhaps this is because the bunker at the bottom of the refrigerated fixture in which the yogurt is stocked draws the eye downward, or maybe most people store yogurt on a lower shelf in their own refrigerators, but either way, it’s clear that eye-level isn’t as advantageous in yogurt as in some other categories.

The Takeaway

While many people assume that market research can be applied across the board, the truth is that each individual product requires its own research and examination. Rules such as “eye-level placement” can’t be blindly used across the board, because the reality is often much more complicated and nuanced. The bottom line is that there’s so much more to product shelving than meets the eye.

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