Eco-labels are voluntary credence attributes defined by a third party that differentiate products based on their environmental impact [1
]. Credence attributes are not directly observable from viewing (i.e., search attributes) or interacting with a product (i.e., experience attributes), and therefore must be communicated at the point of sale to customers. Labeling credence attributes (i.e., eco-labels) allows consumers to carefully weigh all of the products’ traits and select the product that best meets their needs [2
]. Currently, 465 eco-labels exist worldwide with 203 in the U.S. alone [3
]. Eco-labels increase consumers’ trust, preferences and willingness to pay (WTP) [4
]. However, the extent to which eco-labels impact purchase intent is less understood [4
]. Previous literature shows that excessive information in retail settings reduces the effectiveness of point-of-sale signage because customers selectively attend to visual information [7
To account for consumers’ visual behavior, previous studies have used eye tracking technology to address in-store signage [9
] and sustainability labels [8
]. Visual attention is a key component in consumers’ decision-making processes since information must be visually noticed to influence choice [7
]. For instance, Reutskaja et al. [7
] note consumers often choose the best-seen alternative. Factors that influence consumers’ visual attention during the decision making process can be framed as top-down (i.e., “goal-driven”) and bottom-up (i.e., “stimulus-driven”) [10
]. Top-down stimuli are the focus of this study because they dominate when consumers are making choices [11
] or are presented with unfamiliar labels (such as pollinator-related eco-labels [12
Eye tracking metrics are becoming more prevalent in consumer behavior research addressing eco-labels and sustainability [5
]. For example, Van Loo et al. [8
] reported that consumers who value sustainably produced coffee fixate more on sustainability labels (i.e., United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic, Rainforest Alliance, carbon footprint, Free Trade) and pay premiums for coffee with those labels. In the ornamental plant industry, Behe et al. [9
] found that consumers interested in production methods (sustainable, energy-saving, water-saving) had increased visual attention to the production methods. Rihn et al. [5
] determined consumers’ visual attention to sustainable production methods on plants varied by product end use. To date, eye tracking metrics have not been utilized to address consumer behavior toward pollinator-related eco-labels.
Recently, pollinator insects have received considerable attention due to declining populations. This is concerning because of their role in crop/food production, the environment, and the economy [13
]. Pollinator insects pollinate 70% of the world’s food crops [14
], resulting in increased food quantity and quality [15
]. Gallai et al. [13
] determined that, in 2005, pollinator insects contribute 153 billion euros per year (about 195 billion USD) to global food crop production with insect-pollinated crops being valued at 761 euros per ton (about 970 USD per ton). Global food crop supply would not meet current or projected world consumption levels without insect pollination [13
]; an issue that will become more critical over time, given expected world population growth. Pollinators also benefit the environment through increased biodiversity, wildlife food availability, and landscape aesthetics and contributed to the prevention of soil erosion and water runoff [15
Despite the importance of pollinator insects, very few studies investigate consumer preferences for pollinator-friendly products but instead focus on the value of pollinator services and/or conservation efforts [17
]. In 2008, UK households were willing to pay 1.37 pounds sterling per week (cumulatively 1.77 billion pounds sterling per year or roughly 3.5 billion USD) to protect bees [19
]. Another study demonstrated that UK consumers would pay 13.4 pounds sterling/year per taxpayer (roughly 21.6 USD/year) to protect pollinator insects and their habitat [17
]. U.S. consumers were willing to pay 4.78–6.64 billion USD to conserve monarch butterflies and their habitat [18
]. Consumers value conservation measures to aid pollinator insects; however, research at the retail level assessing the impact of pollinator-related eco-labels on consumer behavior are scarce [20
Currently, the U.S. does not have a pollinator-related eco-label. Instead, the promotion of pollinator-friendly products is the responsibility of individual green industry stakeholders (e.g., retailers), resulting in a plethora of pollinator-related labels (e.g., pollinator friendly, neonics-free, bee friendly, and so forth [20
]), which may reduce the effectiveness of pollinator eco-labels. Despite this issue, Wollaeger, Getter, and Behe [21
] determined pollinator-related labels positively impact consumers’ WTP for ornamental plants. Similarly, Rihn and Khachatryan [20
] found that the presence of a pollinator-related label had a positive impact on U.S. consumers’ purchase likelihood for plants regardless of wording. However, the impact of actually viewing the pollinator-related label cannot be determined from these studies. Nor was the presence of additional eco-labels (i.e., production method, origin) factored into the experiments. More information may improve product value by increasing consumer understanding [22
], or it may reduce label effectiveness by increasing cognitive load [23
]. The current study builds on the assumption that consumers want to aid pollinators [17
] by incorporating visual attention measures and alternative eco-labels.
To examine consumers’ purchase likelihood and WTP for pollinator-friendly plants, we used a rating-based conjoint analysis (CA) in combination with eye tracking technology. Ordered logit models estimated purchase likelihood while controlling for visual attention and socio-demographic variables. Recently, visual attention metrics have been incorporated into CA. A review article of CA literature by Agarwal et al. [24
] recommends using eye tracking technology in CA to explore decision-making strategies. A key assumption of CA is that participants evaluate all available attributes and choose the product that provides them the most utility. Yet several studies have shown consumers selectively attend to relevant attributes to reduce their cognitive load, which influences WTP and utility [12
]. For instance, Meißner, Musalem and Huber [11
] found consumers focus on positive attributes of the chosen product and negative attributes of rejected products. Previous studies have addressed this selectivity using self-reported attendance measures [27
] or latent class models [28
]. However, participants often overstate their attendance [27
] while latent class models can be problematic in that as the number of attributes increase, the number of latent classes increase exponentially [28
]. Eye tracking analysis overcomes the difficulties by accurately recording what attributes participants view, which improves model accuracy, reduces bias, and accounts for attribute non-attendance [8
]. Bundesen, Habekost, and Kyllingsæk’s [30
] neural theory of visual attention states that consumers are very selective about what information is viewed/used in decision making due to limited cognitive capacity. As a result, the stimulus that are visually attended to are subject to filtering and sorting prior to processing so that only a fraction (approximately 2%) of the visual field is used when making a decision [29
]. Neural theory of visual attention indicates that more processing (i.e., visual attention) is devoted to important stimuli while reduced processing occurs for less important stimuli [8
]. Here, eye tracking technology is utilized to assist in capturing what attributes consumers visually attend to while making purchasing decisions.
3. Objectives and Hypotheses
Following the conceptual framework that links eco-labels with consumer preferences and WTP price premiums, the overall objective of this study was to assess consumers’ preferences, specifically for the pollinator-friendly attribute on ornamental plants. First, since consumers are willing to pay taxes to fund pollinator insect conservation programs [17
] and are willing to pay premiums for plants with bee-friendly production labels [21
], we hypothesize that a pollinator-friendly eco-label will be positively correlated with participants’ purchase likelihood (H1).
Building off hypothesis 1, we hypothesize that if consumers are interested in aiding pollinators through purchasing ornamental plants that are pollinator friendly, one would expect that their visual attention to that attribute would increase. For instance, Van Loo et al. [8
] found sustainability-minded individuals fixated on sustainable labels more than those who are not interested in sustainability. Other studies found similar results with consumers selectively viewing important, relevant attributes [11
]. Thus, hypothesis 2 is that consumers’ visual attendance to the pollinator-friendly eco-label will positively impact consumers’ purchase likelihood (H2).
The rest of the manuscript is organized as follows. The following section provides an overview of the research methodology, followed by the empirical results, and a discussion of implications and limitations of the study.
6. Discussion, Implications and Limitations
Previous research efforts showed that consumers value pollinator-related conservation measures [17
], but the extent to which pollinator-related promotions attract consumers’ visual attention and influence their behavior remains unknown. The present study contributes to the literature by combining a CA and eye tracking technology to investigate the effect of pollinator-friendly attributes on consumers’ purchase likelihood for ornamental plants. Eye tracking technology was used as an explicit data generation mechanism to analyze participants’ visual attendance to attributes. Previous studies have demonstrated that incorporating visual attendance measures reduces bias results [27
]. Here, we found statistically significant relationships between attendance and purchase likelihood. Overall, our results indicate pollinator-related promotions improve consumers’ purchase likelihood and generate $1.81–$1.84 price premiums. This suggests there is demand for pollinator-friendly products and that in-store pollinator-related promotions could benefit the green industry supply chain members (growers, intermediaries, retailers). However, it should be noted that other eco-labels also generated positive part-worth utilities (i.e., production method, origin) and further research is needed to better understand the relationships between different types of eco-labels.
An additional contribution of our research is the combination of eye tracking analysis with CA as a means to explicitly measure attribute attendance. Previously, Agarwal et al. [24
] suggested pairing the two methods. Similar to Balcombe et al. [29
] and Van Loo et al. [8
], who used eye tracking in choice experiments, we outlined an approach of combining the two methods and using the data in regression analysis. Results indicate visual attendance positively influences consumers’ purchase likelihood for pollinator-friendly plants, which supports Bundesen, Habekost, and Kyllingsæk’s [30
] neural theory of visual attention. Specifically, that more visual processing is devoted to important stimuli (i.e., pollinator friendly), which in turn impacts consumers’ purchasing decisions. This implies visual attention to in-store signage affects consumers’ purchasing behavior and demand [2
], and pollinator-related promotions can be used to attract more consumers.
Although the results provide interesting implications, there are several limitations that need to be acknowledged. First, the data was collected using stated preference measures; consequently, it was subject to hypothetical commitment bias. However, the positive and statistically significant estimates for the pollinator-friendly attribute appear realistic given the increased attention to pollinator health [17
]. Additionally, while participants control their choices, eye movements are much more difficult to regulate and accurately reflect what participants view [10
]. The alignment of the eye tracking measures and the CA estimates suggest reliability. A second limitation was that to facilitate using eye tracking technology, on-site individual participation was required. Therefore, the sample was localized and data was collected in the lab setting using one plant type per image. In the retail setting, multiple products would be in the same visual field at one time as well as additional visual stimuli. The adding of additional visual clutter would likely influence visual attendance measures. In-store trials and retail observations could be used to overcome this limitation.
Overall, our results could assist policymakers, horticultural firms, retailers, and researchers. In the horticulture industry, stakeholders (e.g., growers, retailers, wholesalers, etc.) could utilize the findings as feedback to align their production methods and product offerings with consumer preferences, provided that pollinator-friendly product options are economically feasible. Additionally, since public opinion influences demand and subsequently affects producer welfare, results could benefit policymakers as they determine legislation pertaining to pollinator-related labels (i.e., neonicotinoid-free labeling). Results could also aid future research by providing an additional means (i.e., eye tracking recordings) of handling attribute attendance in CA and choice experiments with more explicit data.