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In the age of online stores, shoppers still like to touch products

October 28, 2010|By Kristin Samuelson

Reporting from Chicago — Want to buy a sweater or shoes at 3 a.m.? No problem, thanks to the convenience of online shopping.

But is that really the most rewarding experience for consumers and merchants?

A recent CalTech study suggests not. In it, consumers found more value in — and would pay, on average, 50% more for — goods they could touch.

CalTech's findings seem to score one for brick-and-mortar stores. "You can extrapolate the implications of online versus in-store, and I think it's a very reasonable implication," said Antonio Rangel, senior author of the CalTech study.

Hold on, say consumers and experts. It's apparently more complicated than that.

Andrea Morales, an associate professor at Arizona State University who researches consumer behavior and social psychology, agrees that shoppers do feel more connected with products after touching them, but says they usually dig deep into the sweater pile to avoid buying one that's been touched by strangers.

"Even though they want to touch them, they really don't want other people to touch them," Morales said. "This is one application of disgust at work."

Shopper Demika Quinn, for example, says she never buys the article of clothing she tried on because it's "usually stretched out or something. I try it on and then go back and get the same size."

The 17-year-old Chicago resident said she prefers buying clothing in person because clothes fit differently and she never knows whether they'll arrive in good condition if purchased online. "If [the store] ships it to you and it's ripped, they'll say you did it," she said. "But in the store, you can pick up a new one or tell them it's already ripped."

Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation, took issue with the CalTech study, saying shoppers often do online research about products, such as electronics, before buying them at a store.

"What I think that study is failing to see is how much of that in-store purchase is influenced by online research," Krugman said.

CalTech's Rangel said he didn't have concrete data to respond to whether consumers are using the Internet to research certain products before buying them in person.

Kyle Robertson, a 27-year-old Phoenix resident, said buying in person or online depends on the product. For instance, he won't buy clothing or fragrances on the Internet, but electronics are another matter.

"Electronics are a lot easier to compare online," Robertson said. "You just type into Google and it gives you what you want and it's usually cheaper. Plus, you can read consumer reviews."

Lars Perner, assistant professor of clinical marketing at USC's Marshall School of Business, agrees that consumers go online to research items, especially expensive products.

At a store, you may be able to touch, say, a digital camera, but "it won't be as helpful because it's fairly difficult to try it out and take some photos with it" there, Perner said.

Then there are shoppers like Jared Carlson, a sophomore at Wheaton College, who says he rarely buys online because he lives near stores. Plus, he said, "I don't have to pay for shipping."

Still, some purely online retailers have achieved success. At Inc., which offers brand-name merchandise at discount prices, revenue has grown to $876.77 million in 2009 from $1.84 million in 1999, when it was founded.

Overstock President Jonathan Johnson says he doesn't put as much stock in "touch" selling.

"For some products, I think that's particularly true," Johnson said. "If you can touch and feel, it's easier to buy. In general, though, I think people are getting much more comfortable not touching and buying."

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