Understanding customer behaviour is important and recent experiments reveal a surprising message for retailers. Discourage customers from touching in-store products and they will buy more.
BI professor in Marketing Anders Gustafsson and his co-researchers have investigated the effects when store employees prevented customers from touching products on display. The experiments showed that when restricted from touching a product, customers actually purchased more during the rest of their shopping trip.
“The most interesting thing is that if you rob someone the freedom to touch something, they will try to compensate that freedom by touching more things and thus buy more things afterwards”, Gustafsson says. “This is very clear in museums. It is no coincidence that the souvenir section of museums is usually located after an exhibition and sell well. You find similar phenomena in luxury stores, like jewellery or branded goods, but it also occurs in product demonstrations in ordinary stores.”
Touching a nerve
The researchers tested consumer touching behaviour and blocking across four separate studies, including one in a live retail store environment. The findings were consistent, offering several key insights.
In the live retail store experiment, participants were either assigned a group with restrictions on touching a closet displayed in a home-furnishing department, or had the ability to freely touch the product. Subsequently, the findings revealed that customers purchased significantly more items after an employee had blocked them from touching the merchandise.
The researchers found that when an employee restricted a customer in touching a product on display, the following process occurred:
- Firstly, it caused the customer to feel reactance about the sudden diminished freedom. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives.
- Secondly, this resulted in increased “compensatory touching” of subsequently encountered products to compensate the lack of freedom.
- Lastly, customers touch and purchase the subsequent products they encountered because they could not access the initial ones, creating so-called “downstream effects”, once the customer left the reactance-inducing encounter.
Individual needs and personal encounter
It is important to note that everyone does not have the same relationship to touch; some people have a greater need to touch products. The psychological reaction of an unpleasant motivation that follows when someone limits your freedom can only occur if a threatened freedom is considered important to a person. And individuals who have a “high need for touch” might feel particularly frustrated when blocked in this type of retail situation.
The results also suggested that the “don’t touch” instruction had to be personally directed; strategically placing a “do not touch” sign in front of merchandise would not produce the same result.
Another unexpected finding from the study suggests that discouraging consumers from touching did not create negative attitudes toward retailers. In cases where the reaction was negative, it was aimed at the employee, not the retailer itself. Thus, retailers might consider implementing this counterintuitive practice to encourage downstream sales.
Store set-up and employee training
The current research contributes to a larger understanding of a retailer’s “sensory marketing strategy” and is the first one to take into consideration the role of frontline employees.
Implications for managers include store layout, such as highlighting areas where customers can touch products directly after areas where they are restricted from touching, training frontline employees to identify and handle customer reactance, and understanding the “high need for touch” consumer mentality.
Subsequently, having store employees politely ask shoppers not to touch a displayed decoy product, which the stores do not aspire the customers to purchase anyways, may make this technique more effective.
Moreover, suggestions include that employees who engage in blocking customers to touch products should be trained to expect and handle minor customer negativity that could arise from the practice.
Ringler, C., Sirianni, N. J., Gustafsson, A., & Peck, J. (2019). Look but Don’t touch! the impact of active interpersonal haptic blocking on compensatory touch and purchase behavior. Journal of Retailing, 95(4), 186-203. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jretai.2019.10.007
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