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Is Your Store Sending the Right Signals?

By Roeland Dietvorst

By Roeland Dietvorst (

An fMRI investigation of the shopper brain

When building your brand, you often have clear goals: communicate clear benefits, key values and get the personality of the brand across. What is it that makes you credible and stand out? Basic questions we all try to address before talking to our audience.

At Alpha.One we help good companies make better decisions. We do this by combining fMRI, EEG, eyetracking and implicit association tests with deep learning tools. Our key goal: measuring how people respond to marketing stimuli. These can be various types of media such as; videos, logos, packaging, in-store communication, or an online environment. In the current project we analyzed how the brain responds to different types of retail environments.

We root all our work in science and therefore work in partnership with the Rotterdam School of Management at the Erasmus University. This ranges from building standard tools to custom research designs. We use these tools to align brand strategy and creative concepts and measure what goes on in the minds of your audience. We have a high regard for the creative process and our aim is to substantiate and improve its impact. In his particular case we showed that brain measures reveal insights that are otherwise not obtainable.


Our clients were interested in better understanding the success of so-called discounters. In these stores we typically see products in cardboard boxes, a limited number of products per category, narrow aisles and simple lighting. In the past years, retailers who have taken this more stripped-down, utilitarian approach have seen a steady growth in their market share. 

This utilitarian approach is the opposite of what we would call a more hedonic approach. The more hedonic retailer creates a comfortable and rewarding shopper experience. With wider aisles, specific lighting per product category, more staff, and plenty of choice per category. In the present study we used functional MRI (fMRI) to answer two central questions:

1.  Does investing in a shopper experience lead to increased buying impulse? We tested this by measuring activity in regions of the brain associated with buying impulse and perception of value.
2.  Do utilitarian and hedonic shoppers differ in brain response to the different shopping environments? For instance, do utilitarian environments evoke specific responses in utilitarian shoppers?

fMRI protocol

For the study we invited 30 shoppers to take part in a brain scanning session. We carefully selected 15 shoppers who describe themselves as a hedonic and 15 who typically shop at a utilitarian style retailer.

During scanning the participants were shown pictures of utilitarian and hedonic environments. We monitored activity in three regions in the brain. To understand how the brain responded in terms of value, we focused on activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). We label activity in this part of the brain as “anticipated value”. Activation in this region is related to buying impulse and motivation. In addition, we also looked at activity in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), the brain’s primary “reward center”. Finally, we wanted to understand whether consumers experienced withdrawal or aversion in response to the pictures. Therefore, activity in the anterior insula (AI) was examined. 


1. Brain activity in response to hedonic style retail increased compared with the discount approachmainly in regions associated with perception of value and buying impulse (OFC). This result shows that it pays-off to invest in the shopper experience. The responses from the brain demonstrate that a hedonic style leads to increased reward processing in the brain. Predominantly in areas associated with increased desire and willingness to pay 

2. Brain responses from the typical utilitarian shopper increased in the NAcc when pictures were shown of a utilitarian retail environment compared with the hedonic environment. This second result shows that impulse buying was actually increased in a subset of shoppers when they were presented with cardboard display boxes, cheap lighting and limited offers per category. We believe this effect occurs because a utilitarian environment signals “cheap” through associations. This result is intriguing; it suggests that - at least for a subset of shoppers - not investing in the shopper experience actually increases buying impulse.

3. Brain responses from the typical hedonic shopper showed an aversive response to pictures of utilitarian environments, as measured in the anterior insula. The last result demonstrates that for the shopper with a preference for hedonic retailers, the
cardboard boxes, cheap lighting and limited offers, reduces perceived value and buying impulse. And. Additionally, it actually triggers an aversive response.


In figure 1 you can find the results for the split group effects. On the x-axis we plotted the activity in the nucleus accumbens (reward processing, impulse). The y-axis shows the activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (reward processing, perceived value, anticipated value).



                                                       Figure 1.


What’s intriguing about the study is that for certain shoppers, a hedonic style retail environment actually seems to reduce their buying impulse. This finding is somewhat counter intuitive. Our interpretation is that shoppers who describe themselves as utilitarian have built associations over time. The associations they activate in response to viewing products in cardboard boxes, cheap lighting etc., evoke a mindset that worries less about pricing. In contrast, the hedonic shopper experience itself could activate a mindset that includes worrying about prices and less impulsivity. Overall, the study results show that investing in the shopper experience does result in increased impulse and perceived value.                                                                      






                                                                                                                                                         Figure 2.

The future

Our clients use our EEG, fMRI and eye-tracking tools to analyze and optimize their dynamic stimuli. These can be different formats such as video, commercials and shopping environments. We have already developed a machine-generated eye-tracking tool. This Artificial Intelligence algorithm simulates human eye-tracking results with good accuracy. Based on this we are developing an even more accurate algorithm which is trained only for retail environments and shelf planning. This means that we will not need to test actual respondents in the lab anymore, making it less expensive and time consuming. In such a way, we can provide a more economic and scalable solution. Ultimately, using Artificial Intelligence for our tools will make eye-tracking studies 100 times cheaper and faster. We look forward to showcasing this progress in the next yearbook. In the meantime, we are working on multiple peerreviewed articles on consumer neuroscience. We have committed ourselves to validating our work through the scientifi c community. This is a critical step in advancing business and consumer neuroscience at the same time. 

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook 2018. Did you like it?                            Order the Neuromarketing Yearbook 2018 here!