debates, why touch matters

Touch it – Want it? Using Touch to Sell

Touch is key to retail and consumerism. The role of touch in the success of the mid-nineteenth century phenomenon of the department store is well documented by Classen in The Deepest Sense (2012), her seminal cultural history of touch. She writes of how the department store brought the goods previously out of sight and touch behind the counter into the customers’ view and tactile reach. Allowing customers to touch goods served to increase their confidence in the quality of products on sale and to create a subtle ‘bond of attachment’ or sense of ownership between customer and product. This bond is considered by marketing psychologists to drive impulsive, ‘must have’ buying behavior. It is this idea, rather than security, that underlies the movement of products from display cases into a customer’s hands in many contemporary stores – from iphones in Apple Stores to high-end jewellery. In short, products are increasingly designed and marketed to deliver a range of sensory experiences and emotions: touching a product tends to lead to more unplanned purchases.

Touch is also known to create symbolic connections of ‘warmth’ between people – in retail environments between customers and sellers. Interpersonal touch, such as a handshake or on the shoulder, can convey trustworthiness and lead people to feel safer and subsequently spend and consume more.

A recent ‘taxonomy of touch’ in consumer behavior identifies four types of touch (Peck, 2010). Three are subsumed within the category of ‘instrumental’ consumer behavior i.e. touch as a means to an end: goal directed, problem solving, and pre-purchase behavior. These include touch to purchase; touch to obtain non-haptic product information (e.g. visual inspection), touch to obtain haptic product information (e.g. specific material properties – weight, texture etc.). The fourth is ‘Hedonic touch’ in which touch is an end in itself (e.g. sensory exploration and pleasure). Being allowed to touch a garment or object in a shop influenced and increased the purchase of an object (Childers and Peck, 2010). Peck also developed a ‘Need for Touch’ scale that is defined as a preference for obtaining information through touch and hedonistic pleasurable touch.

Witnessing the incidental touch of other people in a retail environment can also shape consumer touch behavior (Morales, 2010) due to ‘contagion effect’. That is, the belief that once a person touches an object something of that person is transferred to the object. Research has shown that where the contagion effect is negative – that is it devalues an object this is related to fear of contamination or more directly to the consumer’s response to either the person who has touched the object (who is usually unknown to them). Positive contagion effect is rare, and related to the source of the touch being liked or aspirational. The specifics of a product, the preferences of an individual, and situational factors (the particularities of an environment, e.g. signs encouraging touch, the taking of objects out of cabinets to be touched, or a lack of touch) all combine to shape people’s motivations to touch.

How to seduce people into touching an object is at the heart of marketing. Strategies include offering consumers ‘tangible comparisons of materials’, novel textures and surfaces, modeling the enjoyment of touching an object.

Written descriptions and visual depictions can compensate for a lack of touch in some contexts and for some products. While people have different relationships to touch, for certain types of product qualities ‘there is no substitute for actual touch’, according to Peck and Childers.

Technology, notably online shopping and virtual reality, has changed the way retailers and brands operate over the past decade. However although more people are happy to purchase products online without the opportunity to feel them, a recent survey shows that the majority (75%) of people still want a physical experience when purchasing mobile phones, clothes, and furniture among other products. It is interesting to me that more than a century on from the first department store, it remains important for customers to touch and feel products in a physical store across a number of retail sectors. Although virtual try-on environments can give basic visual access to the experience of an object, touch currently remains out of reach. Current online environments provide a poor sense of materials, their weight, drape, how they might feel to touch, and do not convey the complex sensory experience of materials. iShoogle is an example of an innovative multi-touch interactive video representation of the tactile qualities of materials that aims to understand the felt properties of textiles and how people inherently touch and handle them to enhance the communication of tactile qualities of textiles. For the time being however, where there is no opportunity to touch (e.g. online or catalog) marketers and retailers continue to work to seduce and persuade consumers to buy. They use strategies to compensate for the lack of touch: the use of images and videos, showing others holding and touching object, writing that supports the imagining of owning and describing feeling, for example. These strategies are used alongside a good returns policy and an increased click and collect service: a combination enables shoppers a seamless experience that connects online (visual and audio) with physical (touch, olfactory) consumer experiences.

The potential to touch remains a strong aspect of marketing and purchasing behaviour: as consumers and researchers we need to be aware of and understand how it is being used to sell products.


Atkinson, Douglas and Orzechowski, Pawel and Petreca, Bruna and Bianchi-Berthouze, Nadia and Watkins, Penelope and Baurley, Sharon and Padilla, Stefano and Chantler, Mike (2013) Tactile Perceptions of Digital Textiles: A Design Research Methodology. In: CHI ’13 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, pp. 1669-1678. ISBN 9781450318990

Constance Classen (2012) The Deepest Sense. Berg: Oxford.

Joann Peck (2010) Does touch matter? Chapter 2 in Aradhna Krishna (ed) Sensory marketing: research on the sensuality of products, Routledge: London.

Andrea Morales (2010) Understanding the role of incidental touch in consumer behavior. Chapter 4 in Aradhna Krishna (ed) Sensory marketing: research on the sensuality of products, Routledge: London.

Terry Childers and Joann Peck (2010) Informational and affective influences in consumer behavior. Chapter 5 in Aradhna Krishna (ed) Sensory marketing: research on the sensuality of products, Routledge: London.

Verdict and British Land (2016) The True Value of Stores

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