How the Subconscious Triggers Shopping Choices


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The next time you visit a supermarket, look into your shopping cart and ask yourself how you choose those products from the thousands of items around you. Most people offer logical reasons, but eye tracking research reveals that many purchase decisions are made at the subconscious level. This has enormous implications for brands and marketers, as it affects the impact of everything from package design to advertisements to shelf placement. Understanding how the subconscious interacts with product presentation can be the key to success.

The Subconscious Mind

Almost all brain activity occurs on the subconscious level, with perhaps 10 percent reaching the conscious mind. One of the difficulties of assessing subconscious behavior is that simply by thinking or talking about it, it’s no longer subconscious. The best way to see the subconscious in action is to observe a subject’s natural behavior – this is where eye tracking provides an excellent view.

Eye Tracking

We frequently use eye tracking in shopper insight research to observe what shoppers are looking at and how that affects decision-making. Shoppers wear a small headset with a built-in camera that catches minute eye movements. These unobtrusive devices allow consumers to follow their usual shopping rituals.

Visual Onslaught

Consider the flood of stimuli you process in a grocery store: colors, shapes, movement, lights, pictures, text – all vying for attention. Your eyes filter the flood, bringing the most important data to your conscious mind – “You’re about to run into that shelf,” or “That cake looks scrumptious.” But before those thoughts reach consciousness, the information sifted through your subconscious, and for data to make it that far, your eyes must first take it in.


When observing a scene, the eyes move abruptly, with movements occurring every three to six seconds. These movements, or “saccades,” last 20 to 40 microseconds and are largely unconscious. The still periods, or “fixations,” when information is gathered, last from 100 to 400 microseconds. The tiny fixation location radiates approximately two degrees around an object.

The Consideration Set

When you shop, your subconscious mind constantly filters the noise, moving select information into a “consideration set” that could be worth bringing to the conscious level. Grocery stores tend to arrange aisles and shelves in similar ways, so the subconscious knows approximately where items of interest are located. For example, grocers put children’s cereal on lower shelves, at kids’ eye level, where shoppers without children don’t ever glance.

Important emotional and physiological reactions also occur at the subconscious level. By combining eye tracking with biometric equipment that measures pulse, skin conductivity, brain waves, and facial expressions, we see which items cause reactions that you may not notice consciously: excitement, relaxation, confusion, positive or negative emotions. These reactions may move items into your consideration set.

Getting to the Conscious Level

To sell products, a marketer must get shoppers to fixate on the product, subconsciously enter it into the consideration set, and then consciously pick it up and put it in their basket. How do you increase the chances of your product making it through this decision chain? By maximizing the chances of each step happening.

Shoppers fixate on things that are located in a zone 10 degrees above eye level to 30 degrees below. Getting your product onto those shelves can be the key to gaining fixation. Eye tracking research has found that bright colors, images of faces, and movement are effective attention getting devices.

Next, you need to be entered into the consideration set. Interestingly, placing your product near a competing brand increases the likelihood of shoppers considering yours instead. Private label brands are placed next to name brands so shoppers notice the brand name first but take the private label package into their consideration set.

After your product has entered the consideration set, it must be perceived as better. Oftentimes a shopper will grab a product on impulse, but sometimes a conscious reason is needed: lower price, higher quality, recognition from TV ads, etc. Eye tracking studies and video reviews can identify which factors affected the conscious purchase decision.

Eye Tracking: Key to Discovering Hidden Motivations

Marketers have long struggled to understand why consumers make the choices they do. Asking people directly is of limited value because we don’t remember much of what we’ve seen. But technology, including eye tracking, is helping to solve the mystery of how the subconscious drives shopping behavior. Happily, we no longer need to rely entirely on someone’s story. We can now actually see what happened through their eyes.

Kirk Hendrickson
Kirk Hendrickson, CEO of Eye Faster, a leading provider of shopper research, developed his expertise in eye tracking and shopper research while leading worldwide field operations for EmSense Corporation and product management for MarketTools, Inc. Kirk holds a patent for conducting surveys on mobile phones and was twice a finalist for the EXPLOR Awards. Kirk holds an MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration, Dartmouth College, and a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University.


  1. Hi Kirk, Thank you for a very well written article!
    Even though consumers think they are in control, in fact 95% of their purchasing decisions are made on an subconscious level. Eye tracking is a great tool for data based decision making in Marketing.


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