The ‘eyes’ have it — the key to better sales, that is

High-tech eye tracking technology literally gives insights into the buying decisions of consumers

Lost in the crowd? One of the lessons from eye-tracking studies done in garden centres is that more is actually less — when there’s too many plants on a display bench, the eyes tend to quickly scan instead of lingering on an item.
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Want to get more customers in the door? Get rid of potholes in the parking lot and put an inverted V-shaped canopy over the entrance.

Want to boost sales? Put fewer items on the shelf and lower the height of display benches.

That was some of the advice offered to Alberta garden centre owners by a marketing expert during a Hort Snacks to Go webinar. And it wasn’t based on an opinion or marketing surveys, but from tracking eye movements of customers.

“We believe that if we can make that shopping process easier, faster, and smoother for consumers, it will be a win for retailers,” said Bridget Behe, a professor of horticultural marketing at Michigan State University.

Eye movement tracking has been around for decades, but for a long time was confined to the controlled environment of labs. But technology has allowed researchers to take it to the streets — or garden centre aisles. These days, consumers in the studies wear glasses with tiny cameras directed at each eye to identify what they’re looking at and for how long.

“When we monitor their eye movement, we can find out the way they make a decision,” said Behe. “We’re able to get effective data about a process or a purchase decision that we’ve not been able to get this objectively, ever.”

For a garden centre, greenhouse, or farm stand, having a good road sign is key. Large swatches of colour are enticing and make it more likely the driver or passenger will read what’s on it.

Once they pull in, puddles in the parking lot will be a turnoff. But a chevron — something V-shaped — over the door makes the entrance easier to spot. (Often, that’s an entranceway with a peaked roof.)

When consumers get in the door of the garden centre, they’ll pause as their brains figure out how to navigate the space. Arranging plants alphabetically is the worst system, said Behe.

“What our research shows is that you need to orient customers where they are and where different products and categories of inspirations can be found,” she said, adding, ‘You are here’ signs work extremely well in helping customers find things they might want to purchase.

And while you’re likely tempted to put rows of benches at a 90-degree angle to the main aisle, don’t. Eye tracking shows people prefer them to be at a 45-degree angle.

Bench height is also important. When benches are about half a metre tall, people can get a better view of what’s on the bench (without having to bend down too far when they want to pick something up).

“It produces a more realistic type of garden exposure and people can see more of the product by lowering the bench height,” she said.

Colour contrasts between the plant material and the benches are also enticing, but putting too many items on one bench is bad. When there’s six plants, people in the studies saw 87 per cent of them, said Behe.

“When we doubled that, they only saw 70 per cent and when we went to 24 plants, they saw less than half of the plants,” she said.

And when overwhelmed by choice, customers buy less, the research found. However, increasing the diversity of plants made them more likely to buy. And more than half were more likely to pick a plant in the front row.

“They visually started on the left and stopped at their right, and will pick up some of the plant material on the right,” she said.

Really good garden displays demonstrate the product’s use. (Think of what Ikea does, advised Behe.)

And while placing wares where the eye naturally falls on them is important, so is the nose.

“Put fragrant petunias where consumers can smell them, for example,” she said.

Crossing botanical lines, by pairing herbs with flowers, or vegetables and flowers, can also be enticing.

Signs placed in the middle of a display attract the eye most easily and because people look first to the left, put lower-priced items on that side. And since the info on features and benefits of an item garner more looks, use that to boost sales of higher-priced goods.

Language also matters — consumers are more likely to be drawn to words such as ‘bee friendly’ and ‘local,’ said Behe.

They’re also drawn to images of people they can relate to, and are more likely to buy if the signage has a picture of a person interacting with the plant.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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