Retina-tracking technology gives consumer marketers insight

For decades market researchers at consumer products companies have been asking test subjects what exactly entices them to buy one product over another. What is it about the design, the package, or count size that spurs shoppers to engage in what industry giant Procter & Gamble affectionately coined the First Moment of Truth and place the product in their cart?

These researchers and their counterpart product developers have become increasingly frustrated in recent years. They are coming to the conclusion that the information faux-consumers offer up in the mock shopping environment regarding their preferences is more of just a way to appease the company’s marketing brass. So don’t look now, but marketers are doing more looking than listening as they turn to tracking shoppers’ retinas to figure out what fires them up to buy.

One company in on the tactical exercise is Kimberly-Clark Corporation. When the $20-billion Dallas-area manufacturer tested a new packaging style for its Viva paper towels, Kimberly-Clark used computer screens with retina-tracking cameras as part of its research. Kim Greenwood, senior manager of the paper products company’s Virtual Reality Group, shared in a recent Wall Street Journal article that her organization’s goal was to “find which designs got noticed in the first 10 seconds a shopper looked at a shelf — a crucial window when products are recognized and placed in the shopping cart.”

And with more consumers looking for budget-friendly options for their consumables until the economy rebounds, Greenwood also “wanted to know if the preferences held up on different count packages, from single rolls to multipacks.” The team’s work strategically pieced together details about what attracted shoppers’ attention and even provided the individual shopper’s starting point and viewing sequence. As a result, Kimberly-Clark opted for a wave design on its new Viva paper towel rather than a splash design.

Researchers are leveraging this technology because these handy retina-tracking cameras embedded in computer screen rims are now more cost-effective — at between $25,000 and $40,000 — for the valuable data they provide.  The devices gather information that is used to form a colorful heat map that shows exactly where the shopper’s eyes followed a simulated store shelf.

We already know that big consumer products companies devote ample time and money jockeying for position with rivals on the best-selling retail shelves. But now armed with retina-tracking data from shoppers in the test environment, these companies are making the shopping experience more of a sci-fi experiment. Personally, I thought retailers’ practice of using the scent of “Enchanted Apple” to keep customers shopping longer (a blog post I wrote in 2011) was a bit much.

Catherine Colbert

Colbert is an industry editor and blogger. She covers a variety of industries, such as consumer products, retail, banking, and construction, among others. Follow her on Twitter.

Read more articles by Catherine Colbert.

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