The Power of Touch

You’re in a shop, you’ve spotting something you want to buy, what’s the first thing you do? Whether it’s a plant pot, a new pair of shoes, or even a garden shed – the chances are the first you’re going to do is touch it. Is it heavy? Is it itchy? Does it feel solid or does it feel flimsy? We humans are tactile creatures, programmed to interact with our world by touching things. Quality is often hard to assess by simply looking at something; we need to “feel the quality”. So as the world of retail continues to head online, does the lack of a tactile sense influence our purchase behaviour? A recent study by Australian online retailer, Sneaking Duck, suggests that it does.

From the day we are born, we interact with the world around us through physical interaction; we touch things. To see this for yourself, try walking through a mall with a toddler; they simply have to touch everything they see. Why? It’s biological mechanism. Through the simple act of touch we can tell if something is hot or cold, solid or hollow, sharp or dull, food… in fact we can tell any number of qualities about an object. And as we get older that doesn’t change – we use touch as a way to gauge the qualities, and quality of products.

But when it comes to online shopping, we do lose this ability to touch.

It had been thought that by building the quality message into the brand itself, retailers could mitigate peoples’ concerns over not “seeing something in person.” However when one online retailer put this to the test, they found this hypothesis didn’t hold true.

Australian-based prescription eyewear retailer, Sneaking Duck, recently undertook a series of trials to test their customer’s attitudes towards their products. They surveyed customers who had simply purchased glasses online; customers who had chosen to try their free, no-obligation home trail first; and customers who has done neither.

The results showed that those who didn’t purchase, and those who purchased WITHOUT touching the product first had very practical concerns – the fit, the quality, and the size. On the other hand, for people who had touched the glasses (via home trial), these practical concerns evaporated. And it wasn’t just buyer’s confirmation; even those who had tried-on glasses at home and still decided not purchase did not cite the practical (physical) concerns as the reason.

So what does this mean for online retailing?

The story is not all doom and gloom. Around 47% of offline sales started online (Roy Morgan NZ & Gov Stats 2013), which goes to demonstrate that online and offline continue to work in tandem. And it’s this combination approach that will see retailers continue to succeed.

Reviews and ratings are one such method that many online retailers already use as a way to combat lack of trial. It’s long been known word-of-mouth is one of the most powerful sales tools, and research show that customers put a lot of stock in online reviews. This could be further amplified through a friend-get-friend approach. Not only do customers get the recommendation of a trusted friend, but in many cases can view the product first hand at the friend’s house.

Another approach retailers could consider is to allow customers to experience via home trial. It’s interesting to note that in recent times infomercials on TV have started offering customers a chance to try products for 30 days for $1. The idea being that once the customer has the product in their hands, they are more likely to follow through with the purchase.

And, of course, nothing beats stores-with-door. Online retailers benefit from the lack of overheads that accompany bricks and mortar retail outlets. However there are low-cost temporary solutions, such as pop-up showrooms, where customers can experience their products first hand and share their experiences with others.

As technology gets more intuitive, we need to remember that at the heart of every purchase is a human being who operates under basic psychological principles. There is no doubt that online retailing will continue to grow, and technology will continue to offer new and exciting ways for retailers to get customers into the sales funnel. The key, however, is to ensure that as things move forward we still retain a grounding in reality.

Author: Edward Bell (Senior Creative)