By Eoghan Phelan, Joint MD of the Visualise Group.

As the festive season fast approaches, we reach that time of year when the retail sector goes into overdrive and (whether we like it or not!) most of us will be paying more visits than usual to stores, of all shapes and sizes. During these visits we will also be bombarded with more messages than usual as point of sale messages implore us to fill our trolleys and our Christmas stockings to the brim. Some retailers still seem to be of the belief that more = better, with every spare inch of space filled with some form of POS. The reality, however, is that not only is more not always better, but that much of this material is not effectively engaging shoppers as it fundamentally ignores how we process visual information.


In order to understand how we take in visual stimuli as we shop, it is first important to understand the different types of vision within our visual field. As these types of vision work together to produce our visual perception, and the transition between them is smooth, it is difficult to establish definitive boundaries between them and there are conflicting definitions of the terms, but below is a brief summary of our visual field.

Foveal vision refers to vision in the very centre of this field, where acuity is at its highest, and is approximately 2-3°wide. It is this vision that we use for fine processing of details. Our central visual field then expands out to about 60° in diameter and includes the parafoveal region, with parafoveal information used to determine where to move the eyes. Also included within this 60° diameter is our near peripheral vision, with everything outside of it being our mid and far peripheral vision. For simplicity, I will refer to our visual field in terms of foveal, parafoveal and peripheral vision throughout this post.

As distance from the fovea increases visual acuity drops off sharply, meaning our ability to take in detailed information decreases significantly. At even just ten degrees to the side of the point of fixation we can only resolve approximately one-tenth of the detail contained. We also lose our ability to detect colour and in our periphery are almost colour blind.

Image source: Cognition and the Visual Arts, by Robert Solso, (c) MIT Press


Why all of this is important is that at any given point in time only a small percentage of our visual field is projected on the fovea, and available for detailed processing, with the remainder being a blurred, coarser, less colourful scene. And if you think about how we shop, the very way in which stores are set up means that we are constantly scanning the environment, using our peripheral and parafoveal vision as we navigate the store. In fact, most of the time we are shopping is spent doing this, with approximately 80% of time in-store being spent navigating, with the remaining 20% spent deciding which items to purchase. Despite this behaviour, far too much in-store communication is designed as if we will immediately start to engage with it using our foveal vision, akin to reading a book.


We need to ensure that in-store communication catches the attention of shoppers’ peripheral and parafoveal vision and draws them in to then engage with their foveal vision. So how do we do that? First and foremost, we need to create visual discontinuity. This is where things like shape and colour contrast become incredibly important as these more marked changes in the environment will catch the eye. Imagery is also incredibly important; we can’t read with our peripheral vision but are attracted to images, which can draw us in and compel us to find out more. This is particularly important when designing POS material which is placed above or below our natural eye level, such as floor graphics or overhead signage. There are also certain types of imagery we are more drawn to, but that’s a post for another day!

Arguably, the most effective way of capturing attention is through motion. Our peripheral vision is attuned to detect motion and our ability to perceive motion falls off much less towards the periphery of the visual field, so we are more likely to both notice and attend to something that is moving, rather than static. This is one of the reasons why digital signage, when used effectively, can be so impactful in the retail environment.


At V360° we conduct a lot of eye-tracking research, so we get to see through the eyes of shoppers and understand the importance, and challenges, of capturing their attention in this frantic and cluttered battleground.  One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the speed at which we shop so we also need to remember that, when we’ve done the job of catching  shoppers’ attention, we need to then hold their attention and get our message across, as quickly as possible. Once attention has been drawn to our stimulus, we’ve got mere seconds to convince shoppers that it’s worth slowing down and taking in more information. This is why shopper marketing creative must have a single-minded objective as to the purchasing barrier it is seeking to overcome, or the purchasing trigger it is seeking to leverage. Messages should be delivered succinctly and clearly to ensure it can be taken in within this time frame, and shoppers can process it with cognitive ease. When we become cognitively strained, which can happen when we find things difficult to read, we are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, and therefore less open to persuasion. Not exactly what we want when we are trying to sell to people!


While the focus of this post has been on the in-store environment in brick and mortar stores, understanding how we visually attend to stimuli is no less important in the world of e-commerce. While, within this environment, we will be more frequently using our foveal vision, focusing on specific areas of the screen to complete our shopping, we also need to think about how messages and images are appearing at the edges of the screen, whether these are catching shoppers’ attention and whether they are having a positive or negative impact. Our ability to see things at the edges of our screens may vary with the level of attention given to the task that we are carrying out. When we are under any kind of stress (perhaps due to a poor user interface!) the focus of attention narrows considerably. Studies have shown that on screen motion is more effective than either colour or shape change in attracting user attention, especially in the visual periphery.  Attention needs to be given to the type of motion used, however, as quantity and speed of motion may mean your message can go from positively disrupting to negatively disrupting shoppers if it is seen as irritating or distracting.


At V360°, we follow three simple principles to ensure we communicate effectively with shoppers at the moment of choice, whether that is in the physical or digital world:

STOP – See Me
ENGAGE – Notice Me
LAND – Buy Me

To find out more about how we ensure our communications meet our SEL principles and how we can help your brand win at the moment of choice get in touch at info@visualise.ie

References and Recommended Reading:

Adcock, P. (2011). Supermarket Shoppology: The science of supermarket shopping and a strategy to spend less and get more.
Bartram, L., Ware, C., & Calvert, T. (2001). Moving Icons: Detection And Distraction.
Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, fast and slow.
Smith, G., & Atchison, D. A. (1997). The eye and visual optical instruments.
Sorensen, H. (2009). Inside the mind of the shopper: The science of retailing
Strasburger, H., Rentschler, I., & Juttner, M. (2011). Peripheral vision and pattern recognition: A review.