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Centre is the sweet spot for products on display, study finds

Easter products on display at Toy R Us at Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street location in Toronto.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Did you really mean to pick that brand of beer at the bar, or to punch in the code for that particular candy bar in the vending machine? Your eyes may be making these choices for you, more often than you think.

According to new research from a professor at Montreal's Concordia University, in partnership with researchers at Aston Business School in the U.K. and HEC Paris, consumers are naturally drawn to products that are placed in the horizontal centre of a display. And they are not aware of just how powerful that placement is in their choice of which product to buy.

Concordia professor Onur Bodur and his colleagues recreated retail store displays, and observed participants' visual attention while making a product choice. The researchers used eye-tracking devices to record the process of making a purchasing decision.

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Records of those eye movements showed that the consumers who took part in the study tended to focus their eyes on the central product in a display, especially in the last few seconds before they made their choice. That last-minute focus on the product had a strong influence on which product in a line-up they decided to buy.

The research is relevant to the growing importance marketers place on what is known as "shopper marketing," or influencing consumers' decisions at the point of purchase.

The term is bandied about by advertisers and retailers more than ever, as there is more emphasis on influencing product choices not just through advertising, but also in the store where we are choosing how to spend our money.

Furthermore, the study found that consumers did not remember focusing their vision on a single, central product before buying, Prof. Bodur and his research partners wrote in the forthcoming paper. They turned to eye-tracking to better understand the decision-making process, testing with products such as vitamins, meal replacement bars, and energy drinks.

The research also found that even when a group of products is not placed centrally on a shelf, if the consumer's eye is drawn to a product category, that consumer's choice will still be likelier to land on the product placed in the centre of that category in the display.

The paper, which will be published in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, concludes that consumers might make better decisions if they were more aware of how they are influenced by placement. In essence, we may be making the most natural choice, but not always the best choice.

"In the context of low involvement choice between frequently purchased products, when choosing between unfamiliar yet equivalent brands, the visual search process and consumer choice are biased toward centrally located options," they wrote. "Being unaware that our attention is focused on the centre can lead to poor choices."

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