Using science to sell

Using science to sell

Features - Cover Story

Results from research using eye-tracking technology reveal which plant benefits matter most to consumers and how independent garden centers can better merchandise their selection.

October 12, 2018

Researchers examining which plant attributes appeal to consumers most and influence them to buy used stationary eye-tracking equipment as part of the study. As participants looked at the monitors, the eye-tracking technology measured which signs, which included information detailing plant type, price, origin and production method, they looked at most. The results, in addition to surveys, helped researchers determine if visual attention affected the likelihood that they would buy the plant.

Consumers are fickle. Dr. Charlie Hall, professor and Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University, articulated this during his keynote at Cultivate’18 in Columbus, Ohio, when discussing the consumer confidence index and why the economic indicator has its limitations. It’s something independent garden centers are keenly aware of, too, but to succeed in any industry, some understanding of what is behind customers’ decisions to purchase a good — or not — is important. Researchers like Hall, Dr. Bridget Behe, professor of horticultural marketing at Michigan State University, and Dr. Hayk Khachatryan, associate professor, food and resource economics at the University of Florida, have examined consumers’ willingness to purchase in several studies during the past few years to discover what factors motivate people to buy.

To measure what influences people to purchase plants specifically, in addition to surveys, the researchers used eye-tracking technology to see if they could determine what point-of-sale and display attributes appeal to subjects most by capturing what they focus on. Measuring what catches their attention is important, because to decide to buy a product, consumers have to first notice it in stores, either through merchandising or signs.

“In the modern economy, consumers’ attention is increasingly becoming a scarce resource, and retailers should approach their visual merchandising more strategically,” Khachatryan says. “Although more studies are needed to refine connections between visual attention and purchase decisions, modern technology enables explicitly measuring the amount of time consumers spend visually examining products or reading promotional materials. In our exploratory studies, we were looking at how the eye tracking technology would connect to stated preferences and what are the practical implications for retailers.”

They measured specific plant attributes, including pollinator-friendly and locally produced.

“These are timely topics that seem to have captured the interest of some consumers,” Behe says of the decision to research these attributes. “We wanted to see what the influence was by communicating some information at the point of purchase. Some consumers are quite interested in the environment. Showing this information at POP can help persuade some consumers that this plant is a good purchase.”

Pollinator-friendly plants

Dr. Bridget Behe

Independent garden centers from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to St. Louis, Mo., have noted in casual conversations that pollinator-friendly plants sell well. Some customers at one Florida retailer even survey the milkweed selection carefully to find plants housing caterpillars, complete with hole-riddled leaves, to ensure they will attract butterflies and bees.

Researchers wanted to look at this attribute because of the recent interest in pollinator-friendly plants and examine “the effects of pollinator friendly labels on consumer preferences and [willingness to purchase (WTP)],” Khachatryan says.

The consumer study, authored by Khachatryan and colleagues, noted that despite the environmental awareness of the importance of pollinators, the U.S. does not have a consistent label for plants that will attract them. Creating labels and signage denoting plants are pollinator-friendly are up to individual retailers, “which may reduce the effectiveness of pollinator eco-labels,” according to the paper.

In the study, researchers showed 108 participants, who had an average age of 53 years old and were all screened to ensure they had purchased plants in the past year, images of petunia and hibiscus plants with five specific attributes listed on signs they would see in-store. The attributes included plant name, price points at three levels, pollinator friendly, production method, (i.e. certified organic or conventional) and origin, or where the plant was grown. As participants examined the images on a computer screen, their eye movements were measured, and after each product choice scenario, they took a survey about how likely they were to purchase the plant on a scale from very unlikely to very likely.

“Analyzing visual attention data, we found that participants who visually attended to the pollinator-friendly label were more likely to purchase the plant than those who did not,” Khachatryan says. In addition, the pollinator-friendly plants commanded $1.81 to $1.84 price premiums.

“This suggests there is demand for pollinator-friendly products and that in-store pollinator-related promotions could benefit the green industry supply chain members (growers, intermediaries, retailers),” researchers wrote in the paper. “However, it should be noted that other eco-labels also generated positive part-worth utilities (i.e., production method, origin) and further research is needed to better understand the relationships between different types of eco-labels.”

Local matters, but why?

Dr. Hayk Khachatryan

Khachatryan and his colleagues also investigated consumers’ preferences and willingness to purchase locally produced ornamental and edible plants. This study also included a stationary eye-tracking component and involved 87 subjects with an average age of 45 years, 65 percent of whom are women.

Using a similar strategy to the pollinator study, participants viewed a variety of plants, including pentas, herbs and vegetables with corresponding point-of-sale information that included price, plant type, production method (i.e., a “Fresh from Florida” state agricultural marketing campaign sign), and origin.

“The presence of the Florida agricultural marketing campaign sign in the hypothetical choice scenarios positively influenced consumer preferences,” Khachatryan says. “They were more likely to purchase if the label was present.” Participants indicated they would pay over $7 more for plants with the local logo compared to imported plants. They were also willing to pay $5.42 to $5.48 more for domestically grown plants compared to imported varieties.

How the plant was grown and whether it was certified organic also mattered to consumers and affected how much they were willing to pay.

“If the plant was organically grown, participants were willing to pay $12.30 to $12.32 more for certified and $7.63 to $7.67 more for organically produced (i.e., without certification) plants when compared to conventionally produced plants,” the study indicated.

“Overall visual attention to the campaign sign had a positive effect on preferences. However, this preference for ‘local’ can be due to different ways that people perceive the benefits of local production,” Khachatryan says. “Does producing and distributing locally contribute to the environment, to the local economy, or to the quality of products? In other words, we knew that people typically prefer ‘local,’ but we wanted to understand why. The results showed that visual attention to the agricultural promotional campaign logo increased consumers’ purchase likelihood if they perceived locally grown plants as benefiting the local economy.”

In the three studies noted, researchers used stationary eye-tracking devices to measure preference, but wearable eye-tracking devices can also be used to measure visual attention and how it relates to preference.

Impulse buys

According to research cited in another paper examining how point-of-sale materials influence impulsive buying, 68 percent of purchases are unplanned, so determining what makes impulsive shoppers decide to buy is an important factor to consider.

“However, studies have not addressed the relationship between buying impulsiveness, visual attention to point-of-sale information (i.e., signs, displays), and purchasing behavior. This is surprising considering point-of-sale information greatly influences impulsive buying ... but may be overlooked due to in-store visual clutter,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

The study examined how more than 330 participants across six study sites with different levels of buying impulsiveness responded to plants, signs and how that is linked with their likelihood to purchase, Khachatryan says.

To measure this, like in the other studies, subjects reviewed photos of plants in displays with various attributes such as “pollinator-friendly,” “grown in the U.S.” and “organic production,” as well as the plant name and pricing information.

“Consumers with high buying impulsiveness scale typically do not pay a lot of attention to specific point of purchase information such as signs/tags,” Khachatryan says. “Eye tracking/visual attention data confirmed that consumers with high [buying impulsiveness] (compared to low [buying impulsiveness] consumers) fixate less on in-store signs/tags and more on plant displays. Results also showed that consumers [with high buying impulsiveness] who fixated on ‘sustainable production’ related attributes/signs were more likely to purchase plants.”

Retail takeaways

Behe says that after considering the key findings of all of the studies, she was surprised at how quickly consumers make buying decisions.

“I knew it was fast, but having only 3 to 5 seconds to make an impression is really fast,” she says. “I think making more visually complex displays will capture interest and, as our work shows, will increase likelihood to buy.”

Khachatryan says that their research shows people are willing to pay a premium for certain plant benefits and attributes, and although it was previously shown that people would pay more for certified organic plants and produce, the findings that consumers were also willing to play more for pollinator-friendly plants was new and important. The visual attention aspect in the study looking at locally produced plants was key, too.

“Visual attention was significant. The more [participants] looked at sign, the more willing they were to purchase the product,” he says.

Behe echoed this sentiment, noting that capturing consumers’ attention and keeping their gaze as long as possible is important in retail.

“One of the bigger messages is that the price cue is a real attention grabber,” Behe says. “Put price to the right of the sign or display and don’t make it the headline. Give consumers a reason to come look more, even for a few seconds, at the products by down-playing price.”