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Three seconds
19 October 2009

3 SecondsEye Tracking Research

Three seconds

Three seconds is a long time in retail.

I recently attended an insightful, not to mention sobering, presentation by a company who performs eye tracking research. Eye tracking is essentially following where a customer’s eyes go to when they read a magazine page, look at a billboard, browse a web page or enter a shop. It’s pretty simple: the customer wears a pair of special goggles like safety glasses, walks into the store and shops normally. The staff are forewarned to expect lots of customers sporting unusual eyewear. The cameras from the goggles are then played back, the focus of the customer’s vision being shown by a laser-like red dot. In this instance the shoppers were all looking for a particular category in store.

The results were quite shocking; the carefully placed visual merchandising, plasma screens, and painstakingly detailed content were invariably given less than a second of attention as the customer rapidly scanned the store, settled on their chosen area, and spent another split second looking for their chosen item before turning to look for a staff member. Most of them totally missed a popular item that was merchandised some distance away from the rest of the category to draw special attention to it.
The lesson is this: you’re going to get very limited attention to point of sale material. Customers have done their background research elsewhere, you need to keep communication brief and simple. And put stuff where the average customer would expect to find it. It takes them seconds, not minutes, to decide you don’t have it.

Customers do not always behave in ways that we want or expect them to them to. They will certainly not go out of their way to learn a new pattern of shopping to fit in with retailer’s goals of increasing efficiency and profit- unless there is something in it for them too. I remember working with St. George Bank when ATM’s were first introduced. Part of the “migration strategy” of getting people to use them was to have additional staff working the queues in the branches to show customers how they could save time and make their lives easier. Now, ATMs are part of the furniture but they took some selling in during the mid 90’s.

Customer behaviour can and does evolve. Envirosell ( did some research in 2003 that showed that, although front aisle ends in supermarkets got a lot of visual attention, they were not the most shopped. As the front ends of supermarkets had evolved to be more chaotic and crowded, customers tended to bypass them, and their “capture power” went down to 2%. At the back aisle end, where was easier to shop, sales went up 5-7% over the five years preceding the report. The conclusion was that front ends should be heavily signage based, back ends should be merchandise-heavy. Designing them any other way would be just a waste of time.

I agree with Envirosell- it is easier to design for existing human behavior than it is to try to get humans to change their behavior to fit new design. Productive retail design comes from gaining insights into the way that customers shop and having smart and relevant responses. And above all, keeping it simple- remember, you’ve got about 3 seconds to make an impression.

Gary McCartney is Managing Director of McCartney Design. He can be contacted on

19 October 2009
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