By Daniel Hunter

Supermarket shoppers are to be brain-scanned to test their reactions to promotions and special offers in a major cutting-edge project by one of Europe's leading shopping behaviour specialists.

The project, to be carried out jointly by UK-based SBXL and the respected School of Psychology at the University of Bangor, will ask selected shoppers to simulate an £80 grocery shop in a supermarket, while going through a £3 million 20-ton medical fMRI scanner.

A full range of supermarket products are displayed on a screen in front of them and they are asked to make normal shopping choices from a shopping list while faced with a wide range or promotions and special offers. The aim is to identify which part of the brain is involved in making choices by measuring blood flow and brain activity.

Early research suggests that around 23 minutes into their shop, customers begin to make choices with the emotional part of their brain - which can only guess at value for money - rather than the cognitive part of the brain which is capable of computation and logical decision-making. Results also show that after 40 minutes - the time taken for a typical weekly shop - the brain gets tired and effectively shuts down, ceasing to form rational thoughts.

The project is being sponsored by three multi-national grocery and healthcare companies, together responsible for more than 20 household brands found in shops and supermarkets, ranging from beauty products to canned vegetables. The companies are keen to find out how shoppers respond to special offers and promotions, what their attention span is, and how capable they are of ignoring brands which surround those on offer.

The state-of-the-art fMRI scanner is based at the University of Bangor. The equipment was originally developed for medical purposes, identifying brain tumours and scanning for brain defects and dysfunctional brain activity. But now it is increasingly being used for commercial research.

The University of Bangor's School of Psychology, established in 1963, is acknowledged as one of the leading psychological institutions in the UK, both for its research and its teaching.

Senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Bangor, Dr Paul Mullins said, "We are really excited about this new research opportunity. Our 3T MRI system allows us to investigate the neural basis of decision making. Using advanced brain imaging techniques we hope to get a better understanding of how shoppers respond to special offers. This also gives us the chance to bring our research on decision making into a real world context, and we hope will tell us a lot about how we respond to different types of competing information in the world around us. In particular we are interested in how factors we may be unconsciously aware off can override what might be considered the optimal choice based on conscious judgements. We hope this partnership with SBXL will lead to further research in this area."

SBXL's managing director Phillip Adcock said the scanners were an excellent way of building physical evidence which could back up other research findings.

"We know from previous SBXL research that the brain behaves illogically when faced with the sort of information overload that shoppers are faced with in a typical supermarket. Previous research has shown us that nearly 20 per cent of shoppers are likely to put special offers in their basket even if they are more expensive than the normal product, and we know that nearly half of shoppers ignore buy-one-get-one-free items and only choose one. Now we have a reliable and scientific way of validating this research and understanding exactly what is happening in the brain during the weekly shop," he said.

He added, "Around a quarter of all products on supermarket shelves are on some kind of offer or promotion, so we are talking about many millions of pounds at stake in lost margins if the supermarkets are getting it wrong. We estimate that supermarkets and brands consistently give away 23 per cent more margin than they need to.""

SBXL, with offices in Lichfield and Tamworth, is a leading international retail research firm, combining state-of-the-art technology with a detailed knowledge of human psychology. As well as regular shopper tracking, the company provides retailers and brands with in-depth insights, using techniques such as in-store filming to capture behaviour, The company also provides detailed studies of facial expressions and non-verbal communication to identify sub-conscious decision-making processes, and eye-tracking to determine what shoppers see in-store.

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