28 April 2021 1501 words, 7 min. read

The interest of eye tracking in the retail sector [Guide 2021].

By Pierre-Nicolas Schwab PhD in marketing, director of IntoTheMinds
Eye tracking is a technique used in the marketing field since the 1980s. It allows optimizing advertisements and packaging design and naturally finds its main applications in the retail sector. Eye tracking allows piercing some of the mysteries surrounding consumers’ purchasing […]

Eye tracking is a technique used in the marketing field since the 1980s. It allows optimizing advertisements and packaging design and naturally finds its main applications in the retail sector. Eye tracking allows piercing some of the mysteries surrounding consumers’ purchasing decisions by analyzing where their attention is focused. This technique is therefore of great interest in terms of optimizing the customer experience.

This article proposes a general overview of the history of eye tracking, the different technologies used, their applications, and the concrete results that we can expect.


What is eye tracking?

Eye tracking is a technique that allows the analysis of the consumer’s behavior using an eye sensor integrated into adapted glasses.

Thanks to this process, the marketer has access to all the visual information of the consumer. Thus, it is possible to know precisely where the consumer has looked while knowing the areas more or less regarded.

Pair of glass with eye-tracking device

Eye tracking device on a pair of glasses.
Image: Copyright Rene Passet via Flickr.

How eye tracking works

Eye tracking is based on the measurement of pupil movements. These are captured by a camera connected to a computer to calculate the direction of the gaze. The camera targets the user’s pupil to record the minor details.

The eye tracking device allows representing in the form of points the zones of the visual field where the gaze is set. It also records the “fixation times,” that is to say, the duration during which the eye is fixed on a point.

The results of the measurements are generally represented in the form of heat maps.  They make it possible to visualize the areas on which the gaze has been focused. Thanks to a color gradient, the zones are differentiated according to the duration of fixation. Thus, the areas that attract the most attention can be easily identified.

heatmaps with eye-tracking device

Visualization of the gaze fixation zones on a web page.
Image: Copyright Michael Sauers

In a dynamic environment where the wearer of the eye-tracking device is in motion, the results will be visualized as a succession of points. The elements that attract the subject’s gaze can thus be easily identified (see video below).

The origin of eye tracking

We have to go back to the 1800s to find the origin of eye tracking. At that time, it was used to understand reading patterns and how the eyes scan the text.

In 1878, the ophthalmologist Louis Emile Javal discovered that readers’ eyes stopped on specific words, whereas at the time, it was common to think that the eyes followed a linear path.

It wasn’t long before the very first eye tracker appeared with the invention of the author and psychologist Edmund Burke Huey. Following this event, discoveries and improvements followed one another.

The 1980s saw even more significant progress as eye tracking was linked to the computer, thus allowing tracking the eyes in real-time.

It is since this period that eye tracking is used in marketing.

Why is there so much interest in eye tracking?

Eye tracking offers a window into what happens in a person’s brain when they are in front of an object. In other words, eye tracking allows us to penetrate some of the mysteries surrounding the factors influencing consumer choices. However, consumers are increasingly subjected to all types of stimuli (visual, auditory) that constrain their attention and make it more challenging to understand the decision-making mechanisms.

The interest for businesses is therefore apparent, especially in the retail sector. Indeed, it is necessary to make each square meter of sales area profitable and understand how the customer moves around and how he perceives the environment.

According to the theory of Wedel and Pieters (2008), the attention of a consumer in a retail environment is the result of 2 components:

  • the intrinsic interest of the consumer
  • the “salience” of visual stimuli, that is to say, the emphasis of specific elements

This theory was, for example, confirmed in a 2014 research which showed that the critical elements used by customers in a store were: light, colored elements, clear areas providing better visibility, products.

By analyzing the consumer’s reactions in an environment, we can better design the latter and “guide” his choices. If the consumer keeps his free-will faculty, the environment can be “modeled” to orient or simplify confident decisions.

eye tracking in store

Eye tracking applications in stores

Eye tracking is of genuine interest to physical sales outlets. It allows understanding better the behavior of consumers in the sales outlet and the factors that play a role in the purchase decision. Eye tracking research is sometimes conducted in fake stores with “guinea pig” customers.

Understand the interactions between the environment and the customer.

Many elements catch the consumer’s attention when making purchases. A December 2013 research highlighted these elements: light, design elements, smell, presentation, and product layout in the store. All contribute to the “atmosphere of the sales outlet,” which influences the customer’s perceptions and propensity to stay longer or shorter in the store.

Understand the factors of choice in relation to products

Knowing what consumers choose in a sales outlet is essential to optimizing shelf layout. Numerous research studies have been conducted that explore the visual elements influencing consumer choice.

For example, research in 2020 replicated in-store results from the laboratory. The results show that the following factors play a role in the purchase decision:

  1. Brand strength and product variety increase fixation and duration;
  2. Nutritional information on the front of the package increases attention and likelihood of purchase provided the customer has planned to purchase a product in the category.
  3. Color coding (e.g., nutrition score) and product placement;
  4. The purpose of the shopping trip and the customer’s prior brand knowledge.

These results show that visual stimuli and shopping habits are central to the choices made by the consumer. The customer “chooses first with his eyes.” Eye tracking can help identify these stimuli and measure their importance. This makes it possible to anticipate reactions better and optimize product layout and packaging design.

Eye tracking allows us to understand the factors that play a role in the consumer’s purchasing decision.

Eye tracking applications in e-commerce

Eye tracking can be used when designing a website to optimizing its design. In the context of an e-commerce website, eye tracking can improve the user experience (UX) and increase the efficiency of the website (higher click-through rate, more effective calls-to-action (CTA), higher conversion rates).

This research allows us to understand the contribution of eye tracking to structure the website. The illustration below, presented in the research, clearly visualizes the number and duration of fixations and the eye paths. When comparing different designs, this type of insight is beneficial to understand where to place the essential elements of the website.


eye's trajectory

The eye’s trajectory via the eye tracking device


The authors also propose a heat map rendering. This representation is instrumental in understanding the most intensely viewed areas of a web page. These areas are more visible than in the previous model, but the notion of eye movement is absent.

Therefore, good eye tracking research for a website will combine the two types of visualizations to capture online behavior dynamics.

Heat map via eye tracking device

At a lower level of detail, the example proposed by Neil Patel (see below) illustrates how 2 seemingly similar designs can produce significantly different effects.

On the left image, users are mainly looking at the baby’s face and then at the text.

In the right image, the baby is looking at the text. The effect is fundamentally different on the areas of the website that are looked at most intensely.

The user’s gaze thus follows that of the baby.

At this level of detail, we can see that the different elements of a web page interact subtly. The contribution of eye tracking is decisive to reveal these interactions and thus optimize the design.

eye tracking comparison on 2 website designs

Comparison by eye tracking of 2 designs for a website. On the left, the user’s gaze focuses on the child’s face. On the right, the user’s gaze follows the child’s and the text block is better perceived.
Source: Neil Patel

To conclude

Eye tracking (or oculometry) is a method that allows, by observing eye movements, to understand the tangible elements that attract the eye. By measuring the time spent on each of these elements (fixation) and the eye trajectories, the method offers the possibility to online and offline retailers to be more efficient.

  • Eye tracking allows creating more efficient sales paths, whether they are online or offline.
  • We can understand the interaction between the path elements (physical products in a sales outlet or design elements on a website).


Posted in Marketing.

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