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Tracking the eyes: The keys to consumers’ plant preferences

GAINESVILLE, Fla. —  Picture this: Researchers ask you to sit and gaze at plants from a retail store’s garden display. You look at a computer screen, which tracks how long your eyes take to focus on a visual cue and how long you fixate on it.

Those cues can include what the plant looks like, a price tag or how it was grown.

With results of a new national study, researchers now know that computer software allows researchers to link eye movements to the plants people buy, a finding that can tell retailers more about how to use signs to lure potential buyers. Those are important issues for retailers and consumers nationally, but particularly in Florida, where the environmental horticulture industry generates about $12 billion a year, according to University of Florida estimates.

Hayk Khachatryan, a UF assistant professor in food and resource economics, helped conduct the study. Researchers wanted to understand how visual behavior could influence purchasing choices. They studied consumers’ choices as project participants viewed signs showing several plant attributes. For example, the plants might have been grown using water-saving or energy-saving techniques.

“Investigating the link between consumers’ visual behavior and their preferences can significantly improve our understanding of the effects of marketing practices that use visual cues to attract more consumers,” said Khachatryan, who’s based at the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, which is part of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Researchers found consumers spent more time gazing at plant attributes they considered most important. In this case, 73 percent believe the type and quality of a plant is most important; 16 percent focused on price and 11 percent zeroed in on how the plant is produced.

Plant-oriented customers’ eyes fixated on plants, production-oriented customers gazed longer at the production labeling and those who valued cost looked at the price tag the most.

Specifically, plant-oriented consumers looked at the plants 59 percent of the time they looked at the display, compared to 46 percent and 41 percent for the production-oriented and price customers, respectively.

“While the results may seem intuitive, this is among some of the first evidence that a physiological response (eye-movement) can be related to decision-making, for example, purchases, in horticulture,” said Bridget Behe, a horticultural marketing professor at Michigan State University. Behe and Ben Campbell, an Extension economist at the University of Connecticut, served as co-lead authors on the study. “These findings have tremendous implications for retailers.”

During the summer of 2012, 330 people participated in the study at research centers in Apopka, Florida; College Station, Texas; East Lansing, Michigan; West Lafayette, Indiana; St. Paul, Minnesota and Vineland Station, Ontario, Canada.

Each person sat in front of the eye-tracking device. They viewed numerous photos of retail plant displays taken at a Dallas garden center. The images included how the plants were grown and their costs. Researchers included attributes such as “grown using water-saving practices,” “food-producing versus ornamental” and price to describe the plants.  Displays also varied between food producing, ornamentals and edible plants.

Researchers recorded eye movement across a computer screen. Eye-tracking technology works by measuring the reflection angle of infrared light bouncing back from the inner eye, allowing researchers to record the location of a participant’s gaze, said Khachatryan.

Participants then indicated on a scale of 1 to 10, how likely they were to purchase the plant. Researchers correlated those responses with participants’ answers about previous plant purchase practices and perceptions of local versus organic production, Khachatryan said.

In addition to Behe, Campbell and Khachatryan, other study co-authors were Charles Hall, horticultural sciences professor at Texas A&M; Jennifer Dennis, horticulture and landscape architecture associate professor at Purdue University; Patricia Huddleston, retailing professor and Thomas Fernandez, horticulture associate professor, both at Michigan State.

The study is published in the current issue of the journal HortScience.

Flowers

Researchers at several universities studied consumers’ eye movements while they looked at retail plant displays, such as this one. They found a connection between eye-gazing and traits consumers seek when they buy plants, the first such documented evidence.