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Shopping Through the Eyes of the Attentional Bias

The mail man delivers the mail for the day, and sitting on your kitchen table is the new Amazon catalog filled with everything you could imagine, including all of the latest electronic products. The front cover is the latest Iphone you have been wanting, and now that you see it in the catalog, you have never wanted it more. You scroll through the pages quickly, and scan for good deals. You see so many great devices you would love to have. So how could you possibly see all of the products offered when briefly flipping through the pages? It’s simple, you didn’t. Although you closed the catalog, there is no doubt that there are many products inside it that you did not even notice. This is because our attention capacity is limited. We can not be aware of all of our surrounding stimuli. 

Attention affects all aspects of our life from crossing the street, to learning in the classroom, to making purchases at the store. It helps us make sense of the stimuli around us, and allows us to complete tasks. For example, if you are looking for the cereal aisle in the grocery store, you are not going to go look in the chip aisle. Instead, you may look up to the signs between each aisle, and once you see the word “cereal” you will walk in that direction until you find what you are looking for. This shows how attention allows us to achieve our goals. While consumers use attention to make purchases, businesses work to increase our attention to certain products to increase their revenue. One important type of attention that is manipulated by businesses is visual attention, which is an important factor businesses must focus on as they work to increase sales. 

Due to limited attention, we are not aware of all items in our peripheral vision.

So, you are probably wondering, how do businesses work to attract shoppers? They try to overcome an individual’s attentional bias. The attentional bias is that certain products stand out to consumers more than others due to the consumer’s past experiences and preferences because people have a limited capacity of attention. For example, people may have an attentional bias for familiar stores, brands, or products.

Research has shown our prior experiences affect what we attend to. This is because of recognition, in which our storage of memory directs our awareness to familiar stimuli. Certain strategies have been used to facilitate our experiences as consumers. Factors such as merchandise displays, store appearances, and store entrances all help to draw in customers (Singh et al., 2014). This is essential for businesses because people have selective attention. Selective attention is when we are only able to process a limited amount of stimuli for meaning, and what we attend to is selected due to prior experiences.

Selective attention carries over into our buying patterns. This has been seen in the relationship between attention and unplanned purchases. Have you ever gone into a store and purchased much more than you intended? This may happen if you walk through all of the aisles of the grocery store instead of just the aisles you planned to go through. All of a sudden you may see a snack you have not had in forever, and you want to purchase it. This is because of attentional breadth, which refers to the size of the area of focus one attends to. This was measured via a peripheral vision test to shoppers in a supermarket (Streicher et al., 2020). Along with this measure, customers wrote a list of items they planned to buy, and on their way out, this was compared to items they actually bought. Those with a higher attentional breadth scores purchased more items than intended than those with less attentional breadth (Streicher et al., 2020). When we have a breakdown in our selective attention, and do not solely focus on the items we planned on purchasing, we have a greater area of focus because we are attending to more stimuli. Therefore, the more items you are aware of, the more you buy. 

Selective attention also limits our visual processing and visual search through the location and  placement of items in a store. When in a store, we glance at many products we most likely will not remember. This is because when we are shopping we are often looking for multiple items dividing our attention. As we skip over many products unconsciously, the location of a product within a store is important in attracting customer’s attention. It has been found that Items located in the middle of the shelves are more likely to be looked at than low or higher up shelves as they are the center of our field of vision (Gidlof et al., 2016).  Stores also use mannequins and displays to  help showcase some of the newest items that stores want consumers to see.

As we know we can not attend to all of the information around us, certain items stick out to us more than others. We simultaneously divide our attention when shopping as we are searching, walking, and potentially talking all at the same time. Being aware of our surroundings while shopping requires attention as we are doing more than just looking at products. The information that we attend to is determined partially by our prior experiences, giving us an attentional bias. 

Attentional bias is also seen in online shopping. This is seen in an eye-tracking study done on an online shopping website (Schroter et al., 2021). This study showed participants t-shirts on human models, while others were just pictures of t-shirts by itself. The results showed that we are more likely to view products seen worn by humans than just shown as is (Schroter et al., 2021). This is because seeing a shirt on someone provides us with more background knowledge than just a random shirt which gives us less details. We also are more likely to attend to living things and therefore we are drawn to pictures of clothes on bodies.

We may be more drawn to certain colored jeans due to our preferences.

While attention attracts customers to different products, it also allows people to be drawn to certain brands over others who are also selling similar products. Oftentimes we prefer name brand products over the generic ones due to our prior knowledge and experience of the product despite higher prices. Popular products including brands like Nike, Heinz, or Apple catch our attention. This is because of the mere exposure effect; the phenomenon where people prefer items they are familiar with. When we walk by these products, their logos stick out to us and we recognize them immediately. We also continue to purchase these products because of their reputation. We then have to make purchasing decisions, which are influenced by buying habits and brand preferences containing attentional bias  (Tlapana 2021) 

While we may skip over most items in a store, the items we do not consciously attend to are not ignored. We are just not aware of their presence as they blend in with the other products we do not attend to. For example, a rack of blue jeans may all look the same, but in order for a pair of jeans to stand out in a sea of denim, there must be something about it that catches our attention. Because of this, stores manipulate color, lighting, music, information signs, and price tags to grasp the viewers attention (Tlapana 2021). If a product contains a stimulus which comes to attention, the more likely the customer is to purchase it.

While some retailers believe that more products means more sales, this is not always the case (Singh et al., 2014). In order for purchases to increase, businesses must focus on making their products stand out to consumers. While some factors vary between individuals, such as attentional breadth, other factors can be manipulated in order to be brought to the attention of the customers. All of these conditions help to determine what people are going to buy as the attentional bias causes us to only be aware of stimuli relevant to us due to selective and divided attention.

Works Cited

Gidlöf, K., Anikin, A., Lingonblad, M., & Wallin, A. (2017). Looking is buying: How visual attention and choice are affected by consumer preferences and properties of the supermarket shelf. Appetite, 116, 29–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.04.020

Schröter, I., Grillo, N. R., Limpak, M. K., Mestiri, B., Osthold, B., Sebti, F., & Mergenthaler, M. (2021). Webcam Eye tracking for monitoring visual attention in hypothetical online shopping tasks. Applied Sciences, 11(19), 9281. https://doi.org/10.3390/app11199281

Singh, P., Katiyar, N., & Verma, G. (2014). Retail Shoppability: The Impact Of Store Atmospherics & Store Layout On Consumer Buying Patterns. International Journal of Scientific & Technology, 3(8).

Streicher, M. C., Estes, Z., & Büttner, O. B. (2020). Exploratory shopping: Attention affects in-store exploration and unplanned purchasing. Journal of Consumer Research, 48(1), 51–76. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucaa054

Tlapana, T. (2021). The impact of store layout on consumer buying behaviour: A case of convenience stores from a selected township in KwaZulu Natal. International Review of Management and Marketing, 11(5), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.32479/irmm.11583 

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