Tactility in the shops

Do you like touching products in a department store? You're not alone!
01 May 2018

Interview with 

Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, Anglia Ruskin University


Sensory stimuli such as vision and smell can be powerful marketing tools, so can the same be said for touch? Katie Haylor went for a browse in a department store with consumer psychologist Cathrine Jansson-Boyd from Anglia Ruskin University to find out why, for shops, touch is big business...

Cathrine - What people try to achieve in terms of marketing techniques is that they want people to touch products and goods in general within a store environment. What happens is that it changes people’s perception. To start off with it feels like something belongs to you, you take ownership of the item that you’re actually touching and that effectively means it increases the likelihood of purchase.

But then, it’s also about trying to enhance the fact that something feels in a certain way - luxurious perhaps so that you’re a little bit more prepared to part with your money. But, equally, it could be that you’re just trying to get people drawn to a particular item so that they’re more likely to buy this over the competitors. So if you make something look quite touchable effectively, then people are more likely to go up and touch that particular item.

Katie - I think we should escape the wind and go inside this department store and see what we can browse…

Cathrine - Okay.

Katie - I’ve got to be honest, whenever I come into a shop like this I just go round touching everything!

Cathrine - That’s quite common. You’re not on your own.

Katie - I’m not on my own?

Cathrine - No. A lot of people have a genuine need for touch which is what you’re describing. And those consumers, in particular, will go around and touch virtually anything that they think maybe they will want to have a closer look at.

Katie - It’s quite easy to see how you would want to understand the touch of clothes because you’re wearing them on your skin. Where it becomes perhaps less obvious is in things like packaging or displays. Why is touch important there?

Cathrine - For the similar kinds of reasons. To start off with it’s purely about attracting someone to go up to touch it so that they actually want to buy it, but then it’s about reinforcing something. So if you have a perfume box that has a certain kind of texture on it, that might send you signals that if feels luxurious, maybe it feels cheaper, and often the boxes are a reflection of the actual price and the image that perhaps the perfumery is trying to portray.

Katie - Oh, okay. So fancy, luxurious box - fancy luxurious perfume?

Cathrine - Absolutely.

Katie - Can we take a look at a couple of displays? We’re going to head over to the clothes section now. This is really common, you see this in so many clothes shops: there’s clothes hanging up on the racks, but there’s also a table where you have, for example, jeans folded and you are allowed to go up and touch them.

Cathrine - Yes, we are. And now we’ve got a shop assistant who may look at us - we’ll find out what happens. But effectively, you unfold something, they’re folded up so you can’t see them fully.

Katie - You’ve just unfolded a pair of very nice looking white jeans.

Cathrine - Yes, I have. You might see the colours and you think oh, they’re attractive colours but actually to see what it looks like you need to go up and unfold them. Again, this increases the likelihood of you purchasing them because you have just taken ownership of them psychologically. You think oh, they look quite nice now let's try to find my size.

Katie - We’ve now wandered over to a childrens’ toy section, and there’s one particular item that’s caught our attention. It’s a sticker box designed for ages three and above and, despite having a lot of interesting pictures on it, it also feels quite interesting.

Cathrine - Yes, it does. And this is because children who are visually drawn to something would go up and touch it extensively. The tactile sense is the first sense to develop in the womb and when children come out, they explore things haptically. I’m sure you know, vision is impaired in the newborn and so forth so they really really experience things through their bodies. Of course, if you then look at when they start crawling and moving, they usually go up and they touch everything in sight. This is because they have a need to understand things through their tactile sense as that is their dominant sense.

Now what happens is, as children get older, somewhere between the ages 9 to 11, there’s a convergence in your brain between vision and touch whereby vision actually takes over and becomes more of a dominant sense. Having said that, what we don’t know from science before you say well, but you said earlier that some people are very touch driven is we don’t know whether this convergence takes place in everyone. So there’s neuroscience in small numbers of studies that demonstrate that this definitely happens. So this is why this particular box that you describe is so interesting because you are almost guaranteed that a child’s going to go up and feel the differences in texture and actually not let go of this box until they go “need this, need this, need this” a thousand times and the poor parent will leave buying this box guaranteed.

Katie - It seems like an increasingly common form of shopping is to go online and pick your items that way. So if tactility is so important when it comes to consumer behaviour, isn’t that a bit of a problem?

Cathrine - Yes and no. It also depends on how much of a need for touch you actually need. We know that people who have a high need for touch are more likely to send things back, but you can overcome this for consumers who have a high need for touch, you can describe things in more detail for them. Tell them what something actually feels like. Don’t say it feels course, explain why it feels course. What does it compare to? Is it like sandpaper? So that they can actually understand what it feels like. But, again, you wouldn’t online perhaps want to create unusual experiences for consumers when it arrives at home because, again, if they have expectations and you don’t meet them the likelihood of sending it back increases. So consistency rather than surprises is even more important in those particular scenarios.

Katie - Technologically speaking, are there any ways to genuinely communicate how a product feels even if it’s not right in front of you?

Cathrine - Not reliably for the moment. I know there is a bunch of French researchers that are looking into this and they’re trying to create some sort of tactile pad, a little board that you effectively touch and you can sort of feel what things feel like. I don’t think they’re anywhere near completing this yet. There was a university further down south in the UK who was also looking at having some kind of feedback in terms of what things felt like. So there are lots of people working on this.


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