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  • Michelle Niedziela, PhD & Kathryn Ambroze

Do You See What I See? Making the Most of Eye-Tracking in Retail

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Coauthored by HCD’s VP of Research & Innovation, Michelle Niedziela, PhD, and Manager of Behavioral & Marketing Sciences, Kathryn Ambroze

As seen in the retail issue of NMSBA’s INsights mag…

When investigating consumer behavior and decision making during the shopping experience, eye-tracking remains a popular tool in consumer retail research. But there is more to eye-tracking than “meets the eye.” As eye-tracking technology continues to advance, so do the metrics used to better explore and understand the consumer’s shopping process.

What’s in a Metric?

Through building strong experimental designs and analysis plans, the quality of the eye-tracking data remains focused on understanding the real value of behavioral responses. More than just heat maps of what the consumer is looking at, objective data collected from eye-tracking can provide context to the experience beyond self-report, sharing covert consumer behaviors such as gaze sequences, dwell timing or revisits on certain areas of an exposure.

The dimensions of eye-tracking research can quickly become daunting if the research is not guided by a goal-driven research design. Understanding the research question is imperative for deciding which components of eye-tracking will best explain the experience. Reading a label may require different metrics than website usability research. Eye movement also varies depending on factors such as tasks or goals (Rayner, 2009). Saccades, which are movement shifts, or fixations, a moment of focused stillness, serve different functions. Therefore, both eye movements are useful in special situations depending on the circumstances. For example, consider an ad working to better communicate the product. Novel concepts are typically only gathered during fixations, making it a better indicator of specific information acquisitions. Heat maps are a great overview of an experience, but so much more information can be uncovered from metrics such as time to first fixation (how long it takes to focus on a pre-determined area or item) or sequence analysis (the attentional order). Considering the influence of the type of stimuli is important while evaluating the outputs, since the task and context are a huge component of decision making. A goal-driven research design would specify both the type of stimulus being evaluated and the appropriate success metric.

Dancing on a Fine Line: Control vs Realistic Designs

In developing protocols for experiments, the key is to find the right balance of intervention to keep the participant’s behaviors authentic. The overall experience is intended to capture the normal buying performance through tools of minimal interference. Measures such as the standardized shopping journey, eye-tracking metrics, and behavioral coding will be elaborated on to evaluate as tools to develop strong, goal-driven research design.

When considering the consumer shopping experience, consumer research seeks a naturalistic observation of shopping behavior, without guidance or interruption of the participant. Elicitation is often required by the researcher for commonly used qualitative methods, such as shop-along and speak-aloud research, thus interrupting the behavior. However, for analytical purposes, creating a uniform groundwork is important so each participant is run through a similar scenario. To set the stage, a script can be read to each participant to establish a framework. Furthermore, the directions for the shopper mission can be clearly indicated for participants to follow. The shopper mission can be challenging to develop, as it requires a great deal of consideration regarding the exact goals of the research (e.g. finding a specific product, navigating a floor plan, utilizing a kiosk). By categorizing sections of particular merchandising stimuli and behavioral tasks, comparisons can be drawn to better evaluate the shopping experience. Standardizing tasks through the shopper mission gives shape to the overall research, thus keeping the situation controlled via context.

Eye-tracking studies in consumer research often bracket specific areas of interest (AOIs) to give an understanding of responses to different items within the same exposure. The breakdown of AOIs helps to explain what is visually attended to or ignored. Furthermore, AOIs give an in-depth indication of the participants activity interacting with the places of most concern by including features such as dwell time or revisits to the AOI. These additions help to explain what parts of a stimulus are receiving more attention from the consumers who viewed it, allowing for diagnostic and actionable results to be reported to clients on ways to improve retail experiences.

Another simple but important way to design controls within a naturalistic experience includes behavioral coding of certain tasks. Having notable behavioral codes embedded in the research design keeps the experience more naturalistic, while those small actions vs inactions provide more data. Linking these behavioral codes with measurements of timing provides a lot of information that would otherwise be overlooked (i.e. Did the participant view the logo within the first 30 seconds of exposure?). By having a loose timeframe rather than a definitive end for the shopper mission, it allows for a naturalistic setting without additional pressure to complete a task.

The integration of eye-tracking and behavioral coding within a standardized shopping experience enhances goal-driven research design. Capturing authentic consumer responses is valuable for developing strong findings, and ultimately useful brand insights.

At First Glance: A Case Study

When a consumer views a product on a shelf, the packaging includes functional and aesthetic characteristics to communicate brand identity and create expectations for both its sensory and branding aspects. Interrupting the consumer experience at the shelf by interviewing the consumer or having him/her take a survey while shopping can disrupt and distract from the experience, making it difficult, if not impossible, to assess true, naturalistic behavior. Passive measures, such as gaze behavior, can help to assess the shopper experience without interruption.

To gain new insights into the design of product displays and aisle kiosks for a client, the consumer shopping experience was analyzed using behavioral eye-tracking measures (with outputs such as fixation counts, duration, time to first fixation, etc.). After being set-up with eye-tracking glasses, shoppers were given time to explore the aisle with the shopping goal of choosing a new product for a remodeling project. After natural browsing, shoppers were then instructed to find a specified type of product (with specific features: X or Y). Once the task was completed, shoppers completed an online survey.

By analyzing how the display was integrated into the aisle as well as the consumer’s response to it, the impact of the display on the shopper’s behavior and experience was evaluated. Eye-tracking captured where visual attention was initially drawn, as well as the subsequent fixation sequences. Search duration and gaze sequences, especially when paired with the qualitative survey responses, uncovered the ease or difficulty participants had in finding products or features within the display. This output provided a diagnostic solution for specific visual components to accentuate for future improvements. Additionally, the eye-tracking paired with the online survey shared the ergonomic style sought after when searching for a product. The structure and materials of the package itself can help items stand-out among a crowded aisle.

Overall results from this research suggested the display was well-received, and shoppers liked the organization and variety in the display. The location of the display influenced shoppers’ visual attention. Most shoppers noticed the display when it was in the center of the aisle instead of the endcap, where it was overlooked. By using eye-tracking and behavioral coding during a standardized shopping experience, the key visual factors which have an influence on the experience were detected. Furthermore, the micro decisions within gaze behavior pared with the survey responses give insight into consumer cognition, sharing a unique vantage point of the shopper experience.

Finding a Happy Medium

By striking a balance between realistic stimuli and controlled points of measurements, eye-tracking data, especially when used with a goal-driven research design, provides unique and powerful insight about consumer experience with advertising, in-store merchandising, and other marketing stimuli. Through incorporating the latest eye-tracking technology and analysis tools, combined with a behavioral approach to research, HCD has been able to go beyond traditional retail experience research and dive deeper for true actionable results.



Krishna, A. (2012). An integrative review of sensory marketing: Engaging the senses to affect perception, judgment and behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 332–351.

Lindstrom, M. (2006). Brand Sense: How to Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound. Strategic Direction, 22(2), 80–81.

Rayner, K. (2009). Eye movements and attention in reading, scene perception, and visual search. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62(8), 1457–1506.



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