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The Surprising Reason Online Shopping Can Be Less Satisfying

It's all about touch.

Key points

  • Touch can alter consumer perception of products and services.
  • Consumers tend to be more satisfied when they are able to touch products.
  • The lack of touch when shopping online can lead to dissatisfaction and people returning what they bought.
  • Presenting shoppers with visually-based tactile cues can help overcome the lack of touch.

How does touch change consumer perception? This question is equally relevant for touching products as it is for touching a person.

The fact that touch can be highly influential in generating both compliance and sales has led researchers to dub the phenomenon the Midas Touch, after King Midas in Greek mythology who was said to turn everything he touched into gold.

While touching a product is clearly not going to make it golden, it can make the person connect so strongly with the item that they take psychological ownership of it. This means that the consumer is much more likely to purchase it as they feel as if it already belongs to them. Partially, this will be triggered by the emotions that they experience when they engage in tactile interaction, as there is a close relationship in our brains between touch and emotions.

Interestingly, shopping environments that facilitate touch—such as Apple stores, where consumers can "play" with almost every item being sold—generate more contented customers. In such situations, they are more likely to report an overall more enjoyable shopping experience and are more likely to come back. Thus, there are clear benefits in encouraging consumers to touch products.

The Lack of Touch in the Online Shopping World

In a world where online shopping is almost unavoidable, and people can’t touch what they buy, it begs the question of how and if touch can somehow be accommodated.

The reality is that many consumers have a high need for touch, and when they can’t touch, they become frustrated and often feel dissatisfied. This will, at least partially, contribute to the high online return rates, as people don’t feel haptically satisfied with the products when they arrive.

Return rates are varied—some predict that they average between 25 and 35 percent, but for clothing items, it can be as high as 40 percent. This is a lot more than the average 8 percent return rate for purchases made in-store. While there is a plethora of reasons why people return items—sizing issues, style issues, etc.—they don’t account for all returns.

Clearly, from a business perspective, return rates should be minimised as it eats into their profit margins. Looking at tactile properties could help with this.

In the last few years, it has become clear that textures can be utilised to communicate touch-related information even in the absence of touch. For example, if the tactile properties are clearly described, it helps the purchaser perceive the product more accurately. However, such descriptions only work if they are specific rather than generic.

Furthermore, using moving imagery, such as a brief film clip of a model moving around in a clothing item, also helps with touch-related visualisation as it becomes a mental simulation of touch. Actual textures of products can also help provide cues for what the products are like.

In one of my own studies, we found that if the surface of a biscuit is altered, it changes a person’s perception of several product attributes, such as healthiness and likelihood of purchase. However, this was only the case when the textures were implicit in nature—i.e. when people were not consciously aware that the textures changed.

In fact, it appears that tactile input is primarily processed subconsciously, meaning that it is not something you can necessarily ask consumers about, as they simply don’t know that it affects them. Thus, the examples mentioned here are the kind of research findings that online retailers should take note of. With some creative input, they can be utilised to create more satisfied customers when touch is absent.


Related references:

Jansson-Boyd, C. V., & Kobescak, M. (2020). To see is to hold: Using food surface textures to communicate product healthiness. Food Quality and Preference, 81, 103866.

Lee, H. K., & Choi, D. (2022). Can I touch the clothes on the screen? The mental simulation for touch in online fashion shopping. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, (ahead-of-print), 1-18.

More from Cathrine V. Jansson-Boyd Ph.D.
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