The future of shopper research: Virtual reality + mobile neuro

We can now use eye-tracking to assess effective product placement on shelf and in-store, but how can we combine neuroscience with eye-tracking to further our understanding of shopper behaviour?

Neuroscience Lab test vs ‘pure’ observation


It is much more complex to measure a product in the context of a retail environment than in isolation. Due to the current nature of the equipment most neuroscience research at the moment is lab based; products are tested in an artificial environment and out of context. However, with the exception of mystery shopping, few market research studies are exactly like real life.  This is simply because, to create a piece of research from which reliable, replicable and valid results can be drawn, we must ensure that external variables, causing interference, are controlled. For shopper research, this means distilling the retail experience down to its most basic parts in order to remove all the variables that get in the way.  Even in a pure eye-tracking experiment, while consumers are in the real shopping environment, there are often artificial elements which we cannot escape from e.g. if we tell consumers where to walk, we give them tasks, tell them what to look for etc. Getting permission to study consumers in store is also very challenging, becoming an even harder task when you need to study shopper behaviour not only in one store but across all the big retailers!

The Future…


One of the solutions Walnut and Marketing Sciences are exploring is integrating neuro measurements like brain activity (Electroencephalogram = EEG), physiological arousal (Galvanic Skin Response =GSR) and visual attention (eye-tracking= ET) with virtual reality.  This would allow us to overcome some of these barriers of ‘lab testing’ and get closer to real life within a controlled environment. It is encouraging to see studies supporting the comparability of some aspects of consumer behaviour in virtual reality and real life.  Virtual reality is not a ‘new toy’, but a game-changing development for neuroscience as well as other research fields.


There is strong evidence that shoppers use learnt cues like colour or shape to make assumptions about products. They follow cues such as the position of the shelf, packaging cues, the size of the brand, but they are not conscious of this or the effect this has on their behaviour and choice. These assumptions are subconsciously applied in an auto-pilot like mode. Therefore, to gain a deeper understanding of shoppers, we need to be able to measure all these learnt behaviours which we all subconsciously apply when we navigate a store.

At the moment the tools we have to assess the effectiveness of a product packaging or point of sale material are:

  • EEG/GSR/ET  used in the context of a lab test  (task based approach or moment  by moment analysis)
  • Online measuring implicit reaction times. Respondents are exposed to high quality visual stimulus and asked how much they agree or disagree with certain packaging statements on a 5 pt scale. Implicit reaction time is then measured providing an additional dimension to the data collected. This can also be followed by some qual to get to the bottom of why the association with the specific pack assessed and attribute is weaker.

The choice of best method depends on the specific client objectives, budget and timings.

Integration of brain activity, physiological arousal and eye-tracking in a portable mobile device is still in its infancy and more research is needed in order to have these three metrics working together but we are getting closer! When this is a reliable reality we will able to use virtual reality with fully free movement or use neuro measurement directly in store (with permissions!).

Virtual reality and mobile neurometrics together will be an incredible step forward in our understanding of shopper behaviour enabling us to replicate the environment in which people are making their decisions.


Resources for further reading…


ESOMAR World Research, 2011. 36 Questions to Help Commission Neuroscience Research. ESOMAR.

 Balanzo, C., Serrano, N., Scamell-Katz, S., 2010. Damasio: A Starting point for integrating neuroscience findings into retail research. ESOMAR,  Congress 2010.

Cristina co-wrote a chapter on neuroscience and shopper behaviour in the book ‘Your brain is everything’.  This can be accessed here

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Cristina De Balanzó
01962 842211
Article date - 10/11/2014
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