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Wearing eye tracking glasses, Research Associate with the Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph is photographed in the university’s Longo’s Food Retail Lab and the Schneider’s Research Lab on May 9 2017. Using the eye tracking glasses, researchers will look into shopping habits and decisions customers make while shopping

Big Brother has arrived at your grocery store

Researchers at the University of Guelph are helping multinationals like Nestlé and Danone change your shopping habits

Walking into this white-walled room, lined with shelves of colourful potato-chip bags and tidy stacks of granola bars, is a snacker's dream. Except this room is at the University of Guelph, on the third floor of a red-brick building, and these treats aren't for snacking. This mock grocery store, opened last spring, is the latest Canadian contribution in a wave of new research designed to give governments and corporations better data on real-time choices consumers make in stores.

Consumers are notoriously unreliable in accounting for their own behaviour around food, which makes it difficult to predict the success of new products or marketing techniques, says lab director Michael von Massow, who teaches at the university's department of food, agricultural and resource economics. "People will often tell us they'll do something because they want to look virtuous," he says. "But when they actually have to spend money, they don't."

So multinationals like Nestlé and Danone, as well as universities like Guelph, are increasingly using eye-tracking software, ceiling-mounted cameras, and simulated dining and retail environments like this one to identify and harness consumers' predilections.

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It took three days and thousands of dollars to stock this 1,400-square-foot room, says von Massow, with the groceries and equipment paid for out of a five-year gift to the university from Toronto-based grocery chain Longo's. It was launched along with a computer lab—funded by meat processor Schneider's—where researchers can monitor results and run other experiments.

As a graduate student wearing an eye-tracking headset scans an aisle of cereal boxes, von Massow holds up a tablet showing a video of the student's field of vision. It provides a real-time view of what the student looks at and how, from ingredient decks to nutrition labels. It can be edited, slowed down or run through algorithms, says von Massow, which he predicts will reveal more about human behaviour than a survey ever could.

Because this isn't a real store, von Massow says researchers will be able to test marketing strategies and labelling currently not allowed in the marketplace to see which tweaks can encourage shoppers to make healthier or smarter choices. Health Canada is currently considering mandatory front-of-package warning labels on foods containing more than 15% of the recommended daily intake of substances like fat, sugar and salt, and von Massow says that is deeply worrisome to food companies. "It's very contentious, and industry hates it," he says.

The mock store's first project will investigate consumers' reaction to granola bars containing genetically modified ingredients. "I think consumers have a right to know," says von Massow, "and they have a right to be irrational."

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