Science Says You Shop Differently If You’re Looking Up At Products

Just about everyone knows that the vital shelf space on a supermarket shelf is right below eye level, where your eyes are naturally drawn to products and you don’t have to crouch or crane your neck to see. A new study claims that vertical positioning on a shelf doesn’t just impact whether or not we see a product, but what kinds of purchasing decisions we make.

This is according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research that looks at whether we perceive items differently based on whether we’re looking up or down at them.

The idea tested by researchers from Ghent University in Belgium is that humans process different stimuli when looking down versus up. More precisely, that because we so often look downward at detailed items that are within close proximity — books, computers, watches — humans seek out more concrete information than when we turn our view upwards to take a more generalized look at things in the distance.

“Consumers may be so used to paying detailed and focused attention when they are looking down that they
might also do this when selecting a product from a low shelf,” suggests the report. “Similarly, consumers may be so used to taking a broader perspective when looking up that they will also do this when selecting a product from a higher shelf.”

In one experiment, college students were blindfolded and seated in a chair that positioned their heads at either 30% upward or 30% downward while someone described a scene at a lake with a boat on it. When asked afterward to estimate how far away they imagined the boat to be, subjects with downward-tilted heads said around 29 feet on average, while those whose heads had been tilted up estimated an average of 83 feet, more than 2.5 times as far away.

The researchers believe this shows that, because the subjects were blindfolded, the perception difference has more to do with the body movement of looking up or down than the actual seeing of these items.

A later study more directly related to retail involved making a purchase decision with subjects heads at different angles.

Subjects were instructed to keep their heads tilted upward, downward, or keep them level while responding to a series of questions. One question asked them to make a decision about buying a printer between two models.

Printer A was described as “higher in reliability (with a score of 9 out of 10) and slightly lower in quality (with a score of 8 out of 10)” while Printer B was “lower in reliability (scoring 8 out of 10) but higher in quality (scoring 9 out of 10).” So Printer A, according to the researchers, is a product that scores higher in a more concrete aspect — reliability — while Printer B outscores the other product in the more generalized “quality” aspect.

Test subjects were asked to decide on a printer by dividing 100 points between the two competing items then rate the quality and reliability of each product on a 9-point scale.

The results show that subjects who looked up were more likely to choose Printer B (the “higher quality” but less reliable model) than either those who looked down or looked straight ahead. And those who looked down were the least likely to select Printer B.

“[E]ngaging in bodily movements that enable consumers to look down increases the importance of feasibility attributes over desirability attributes,” explain the researchers, “while engaging in bodily movements that enable consumers to look up increases the importance of desirability attributes over feasibility attributes.”

In terms of how their findings can impact the marketing of retail products, the researchers believe that established brands with large market shares may benefit from shelf positions that require the consumer to look down a bit, as their study found subjects more often selected their most preferred brands when looking down.

“Consequently, when all competitive brands appear in low positions, the market share of the market leader (which is often the most preferred brand) is likely to become even larger when all competitive brands appear in low rather than high positions,” explains the report. “Similarly, our results suggest differences in the processing of in-store ads that hang from the store ceiling, floorboards attached to the store floor, and eye-level ads on shelves.”

The research may also impact online commerce, as most of us are looking downward at our laptop and smartphone screens when we shop at Amazon and the like. In fact, a consumer’s purchase-related decision making may be influenced by whether they’re browsing a site at work, where they are more likely to be looking straight ahead at their monitor, or on a tablet or phone, which is usually positioned much lower.

The study authors believe that more research on the actual retail implications of their findings is needed.

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