Amazon Discovers The Human Touch

Amazon, that fabled bricks-and-mortar slayer, is building upon its occupation of conquered territory (aka food stores) as it eyes a similar strategy in the apparel space. The company just opened a central London pop-up store to solicit shoppers’ feedback about its own lines such as Truth & Fable and established brands like Calvin Klein, as well as other facets of the store experience. As a spokeswoman explained, “We know with fashion, customers love to touch and feel the product.”

True that. One of the barriers between e-commerce and the total annihilation of traditional apparel retailing is the e-shopper’s inability to reach out and touch the product. Of course a big part of this challenge is the question of fit on the body. But there’s also the desire to experience the “hand” of the fabric. Texture is a “secret weapon” physical stores still have available to combat the occupying forces of online merchants — should they choose to deploy it.

Despite all the talk today about sensory marketing strategies that appeal to shoppers via their other senses in addition to the visual, the sense of touch is the least appreciated. That’s a mistake.

Some anthropologists view our experience of touch much like a primal language, one we learn well before writing and speech. Indeed, researchers are starting to identify the important role the haptic (touch) sense plays in consumer behavior. Indeed, the classic, contoured Coca-Cola bottle was designed approximately 90 years ago to satisfy the request of a U.S. bottler for a soft-drink container that people could identify even in the dark.

Haptic senses appear to moderate the relationship between product experience and the confidence we place in our judgments. This confirms the commonsense notion that we’re surer about what we evaluate when we can touch it. Individuals who score high on a “Need for Touch” (NFT) scale are especially sensitive to the haptic dimension. These people respond positively to such statements as:

  • When walking through stores, I can’t help touching all kinds of products.
  • Touching products can be fun.
  • I feel more comfortable purchasing a product after physically examining it

When a retailer encourages shoppers to touch a product, it’s easier for them to imagine they own it. And researchers know that people value things more highly if they own them: This is known as the endowment effect. One set of researchers found that participants who simply touched an item (an inexpensive coffee mug) for 30 seconds or less reported a greater level of attachment to the product; this connection in turn boosted how much they were willing to pay for it.

Sure, nice textures are aesthetically pleasing – and higher quality fabrics are more comfortable to wear. However the feel of cloth or other materials also signifies other qualities. In particular, consumers assume that softer or smoother surfaces link to wealth and higher social class as well as gender. Coarse fabrics like traditional denim (not the higher-priced versions so popular today) evoke visions of rough-hewn working class men, while soft cotton is the province of fancy ladies. Those 500 thread count sheets say as much about status as they do about a peaceful night’s sleep.

It’s early days, but soon we may see more evidence of the power of touch even in the online world. Touchscreens create a stronger feeling of psychological ownership compared to products consumers explore using a touchpad or a mouse. The proliferation of touchscreens on computers, ATM machines, digital cameras, GPS devices, and e-readers is an outgrowth of the natural user interface philosophy of computer design. This approach incorporates habitual human movements that we don’t have to learn. Sony for example decided to offer touchscreens on its e-readers after its engineers repeatedly observed that people in focus group automatically swiped the screen of its older, nontouch models. Earlier this year Haptx launched a prototype of a haptic glove for players to use in virtual reality; they can actually “feel” physical sensations like raindrops falling as they make their way through VR environments.

We’re still years away from an online shopping platform that allows customers to “feel” the items they see for sale, but most likely we’ll get there. In the meantime, physical retailers should revisit the competitive advantage they still retain – encourage your customers to play with the merchandise!

© 2018 Michael Solomon  All rights reserved.


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