December 13, 2012, 9:56 AM

Busy online shoppers look for bright objects

Product appearance can trump brand preference, a Caltech study says.

Amy Dusto

Associate Editor

Lead Photo

Bright product images can trump brands when it comes to inducing online shoppers to purchase, suggests a report from researchers at the California Institute of Technology and EyeQuant, which says its technology can predict how consumers scan web sites.

Multi-tasking consumers tend to select items that are the brightest and most striking, even if they’ve previously stated a preference for another brand. For e-retailers, that means designing web sites should incorporate bright, high-contrast elements in key positions to catch the eyes of consumers and encourage them to purchase. Caltech visual neuroscientistsMilica Milosavljevic and Christof Koch, who sit on EyeQuant’s scientific advisory board, contributed to the research.

“With millions of offers competing for attention, we all spend less and less time to decide whether a freshly opened web site is worth our time, often juggling between different tabs, chats and other distractions,” writes EyeQuant chief marketing officer Fabian Stelzer on the company’s blog. “If your online shop or web site communicates its core value propositions in a visually effective way, it can make all the difference.”

The researchers simulated a quick shopping trip on a computer screen. They asked study participants to choose between two branded food options, each of which was surrounded by eight others products, mimicking e-retail category pages that show several items at a time. Participants had to select one of the two branded items right away. In each case, one of the two choices appeared brighter than the surrounding items, making it pop out visually. The length of time the participants had to look and make a selection varied from 70 to 500 milliseconds.

Although the participants had previously ranked all the items according to their brand preferences, they more frequently chose items that stood out over ones they preferred, the results say. The effect was stronger when the standout item and a preferred item were ranked closely, when the time to decide between them was shorter and when the subjects were asked to simultaneously perform another cognitive task—an attempt to mimic the distractions that multitasking, on-the-go shoppers face.

In particular, when two items in the study ranked nearly the same, meaning the participant was just slightly biased towards one of them, she chose the less-preferred but visually striking food at least 40% of the time, the study says.  EyeQuant says the results suggest that improving the visual impact of a web site could be a cost-effective way to increase sales without spending more money on branding.

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