New research shows how UK consumers shop on autopilot and are fooled by products in similar packaging. Products packaged to look like familiar brands fool us, prompting mistakes.
The research was sparked by a report by Which? in 2013 that identified around 150 products in similar packaging and found that, of the 2,244 people surveyed, 20% reported buying a copy by mistake instead of the brand. The study set out to discover why and how such errors occur.
The study used eye-tracking techniques to allow participants’ actual behaviour to be monitored. It assessed the time taken to find products, the accuracy of decision-making and participants’ recall of the products they had seen.
The study sheds light on how we shop on autopilot, using mental shortcuts (heuristics) to make fast decisions without engaging our full attention. A problem arises when the visual similarity of a pack is sufficient for the copy to be recognised as the brand, a conclusion that is then not questioned.
The key results of the study are:
• When searching, colour is the primary feature we use to identify products;
• When a copy is present on shelf, it is often identified before the brand, giving it an advantage;
• When a decision is made, the copy is mistaken for the brand in 20% of cases when both are present on shelf. This increases to 64% when only the copy is present;
• Recall of the copies is little better than chance, suggesting they are not encoded in memory and
that unconscious decision-making is at play;
• Ageing populations, notably those with colour disorders and blurred vision, are at particular risk.
John Noble, Director of the British Brands Group, said, “In the cold light of day, it is easy to spot a copy but that is not how we shop. In the supermarket, there are thousands of products and these are everyday purchases. We devote seconds to each and rely on shortcuts to make our choices. Products in similar packaging prey on this, prompting mistakes and encouraging false assumptions. Similar packaging that misleads shoppers is unlawful but goes unchallenged in the UK. That does not serve shoppers or brand owners well.”