Do this with your eyes when you go shopping if you don’t want to overspend

The occasional impulse purchase after a bad day or tough week can be a great way to treat yourself. Of course, start making impulse buys regularly and your wallet will start feeling much lighter.

If you’re looking to keep your holiday budget in check this year, the results of a fascinating new study from the University of Innsbruck in Austria may be of some help. To borrow a quote from literally every driver’s ed teacher ever: “eyes forward!”

The research team behind the study says retailers and stores utilize several subtle techniques to try and encourage more impulse buys.

According to their findings, the average shopper’s “visual attention” and subsequent purchase decisions while browsing aisles can be influenced by something as simple as glancing at products being displayed on a monitor.

Essentially, stores want shoppers to see and explore more aisles and more products. After all, you can’t decide to buy that nice new pair of sunglasses on a whim if you never see them in the first place. 

“Over the past decades, retailers have developed many sales strategies that focus on the visual attention of customers,” comments study leader Mathias Streicher from the Institute for Strategic Management, Marketing, and Tourism at the University of Innsbruck, in a release.

One veteran retail tactic Streicher described is the practice of placing essential items in the back of the store and putting more superfluous, recreational goods prominently in the front. That way, when you run to the store for some milk and bread, you have to pass by the display cases promoting chips and beer on your way to the dairy aisle. Another age-old sales tactic is to put discounted products front and center.

“All these strategies maximize the journey through the store and increase the probability to remember a forgotten need or discover a new product,” Streicher notes.

Still, no matter how many tricks or strategies stores try to utilize, shoppers are ultimately limited to what they see (their visual attention). One cannot view an entire store’s inventory in one glance, it’s just not humanly possible. Now, researchers were able to successfully manipulate a group of volunteer shopper’s visual attention on a completely unconscious level.

“In looking at shelves, shoppers always see a subset of the assortment and which subset they see critically depends on their visual attention,” Streicher explains. “We were able to show that attentional patterns can be unconsciously broadened or even narrowed down by simple in-store communications.”

How was this accomplished? The team set up the experiment in a small shop located on the University of Innsbruck’s campus. As a group of shoppers entered the store and started to browse, a digital display TV located at the front of the shop displayed a continual rotation of products for sale either in the middle of the screen (to encourage narrow focus) or on alternating left/right sides (to encourage more broad visual attention for the rest of the retail experience). 

Before finishing up, each shopper was given a pair of eye movement tracking glasses and told to take a look at the store’s candy area. Sure enough, shoppers who had seen product images on the far sides of the display looked at a wider variety of candy products than shoppers who had only seen goods in the center of the screen.

“We show that a very simple intervention before shopping can have consequences for a person’s shopping behavior,” Streicher summarizes.

A similarly structured second study was also held. This time around shoppers were shown the same screen displays but then fitted with pedometers to track just how much of the store they browsed. Once again, shoppers shown the “broad focus encouraging” displays spent more time walking around the shop.

Perhaps most importantly, across both those experiments, the shoppers who spent more time walking around or looking at the candy ended up making more purchases by the end of their visit.

It isn’t always necessarily a bad thing to buy more than you were expecting. But, if you’re looking to cut back on spending, the study’s authors recommend preparing before heading to the store and doing your best to stay focused on what brought you to that shop in the first place.

“Our research shows that unplanned purchasing already begins at the level of visual attention,” Streicher concludes. “To reduce unplanned purchases, it is therefore better to avoid wandering glances in shopping situations – preferably with the support of a shopping list.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Consumer Research.