CLEMSON — The latest in eye-tracking technology was in focus at the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics’ exhibit, “The Consumer Retail Experience by Clemson University,” at PACK EXPO Las Vegas 2011.

The 3,600-square-foot exhibit showcased the educational programs of the Sonoco Institute for both students and industry professionals, and also served as a unique laboratory for an innovative consumer research experiment.

Seven Clemson graduate students and two undergraduate students, all in white lab coats, greeted visitors to the exhibit and invited them to participate in a research experience as high-tech shoppers. The participants put on digital eye-tracking glasses that recorded their eye movements at 30 movements per second and showed on a computer where they looked and what attracted their attention.

The experiment took place in a simulation of a small mini-mart: the 1,000-square-foot CUshop designed and built at the Sonoco Institute, disassembled and shipped to Las Vegas. When reassembled, the CUshop was complete with shopping aisles, shelves of boxes and items commonly found in a grocery store.

When participants finished shopping they received a computer printout of a “heat map” showing what they looked at.

“Eye-tracking is the science behind the design of retail packaging,” said Chip Tonkin, director of the Sonoco Institute. “The research we are doing here is groundbreaking because it takes place in real time in a real shopping environment. Most eye-tracking research is done in a virtual world looking at a large screen.”

Assistant professor R. Andrew Hurley advises the graduate students who managed the Consumer Retail Experience at PACK EXPO, and is a leader in the area of packaging design and consumer experience.

Hurley notes that the research being conducted at the exposition “unveils consumer decision-making and investigation at the subconscious level.” Hurley and his team are specifically searching for trends in packaging design elements that “impact the perceived quality of products.”

Using the latest mobile eyetracking equipment and software, research participants can move freely in the CUshop unrestricted by the limitations of cumbersome, older glasses. Unlike most controlled experiments, an advantage of the research done at PACK EXPO is the demographic distribution of the participants: young, old and from all parts of the U.S. and the world.

“This research will help to improve the speed, efficiency and sustainability of product development and packaging design,” said Tonkin. “New products often fail and at great cost. The research method we are using here can help to identify what consumers respond to and what doesn’t work. All that waste can be avoided.”

Daniel Hutcherson, a graduate student in packaging science, has an undergraduate degree from Clemson University in architecture. “The Sonoco Institute is right across from the School of Architecture. The Institute is leading the way in digital fabrications and I was drawn to the digital and visual realms,” he said. “They have digital fabrication equipment, milling machines, 3-D printers, rapid prototypers — all state-of-the-art.”

“I want to do research on the 'real estate' of packaging and display,” he said. “How quickly can a shopper find something and does the spacing of an object on a shelf influence consumer purchasing decisions? Our team will be extrapolating this data for months.”

The Sonoco Institute presented this research direction to its advisory board last fall and board members made it a top priority.

Officials from PMMI, the owner and producer of the PACK EXPO trade shows (PACK EXPO International in Chicago, PACK EXPO Las Vegas and EXPO PACK Mexico), toured the Sonoco Institute and became interested in the eyetracking research at the CUshop consumer research lab. PMMI sponsored the students to attend PACK EXPO and donated the exhibit space. The 2011 edition of PACK EXPO Las Vegas was the largest to date with more than 25,000 visitors, including 1,600 exhibitors, and approximately 630,000 net square feet of exhibit space.

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