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In stores, where you look influences what you buy

Kelly Dilworth

The next time you visit a store, think twice about the direction of your gaze when comparing different products. According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, retailers could influence which products you prefer — and how much you’re willing to pay for them — simply by placing them higher, or lower, on the shelf.

In stores, direction of look matters

“Consumers pay attention to different aspects of products, depending on whether they are looking down or up,” write study authors Anneleen Van Kerckhove, Maggie Geuens and Iris Vermeir, all of Ghent University in Belgium, in a March 6 news release.

When shoppers look down at a product, for example, they tend to pay closer attention to concrete features, such as price. But when they look up, they’re more likely to focus on bigger-picture details such as a product’s quality or convenience, the authors found.

As a result, shoppers who compare items on a higher shelf may find costlier products more appealing because they’re less focused on the price.

The authors theorize this effect may be due to the unconscious associations people make when they look in a particular direction. For example, “people are used to paying detailed attention when looking down because everything that happens close to them could be important or dangerous,” write the authors. As a result, they’re primed to focus on more concrete details when comparing different products.

Shoppers tend to associate looking up, by contrast, with looking at things from a longer distance, the authors write, so they tend to focus on more abstract reasons for why an item appeals to them. “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,” the authors write in the release.

What it means for you
Where you look could affect what you buy. Don’t assume just because you feel drawn to particular item, it’s necessarily the best purchase. Retailers routinely use product placement and other cues to subtly influence how you think and what you choose to buy.

For example, previous research has shown that products placed at eye level tend to sell more quickly. So do products priced a penny lower than round numbers. (For example, shirts  sold for $9.99 are more appealing than shirts sold for $10.)

The next time you reach for an item on a shelf, think more deeply about where it’s placed and what message that conveys. You may find a retailer is trying to nudge you into buying an item more expensive than it’s worth.

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