How touch can make us feel more ownership over products.
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Have you ever walked into a store and immediately come face-to-face with a display of items that almost called out to be touched? Here in Canada, the bookstore, if it can be called that given that books are a minority of its wares, Indigo, offers great examples of touchable displays.
You come in to make a premeditated purchase, say a notebook or a birthday card. But next thing you know, you’re feeling a soft blanket, sniffing a scented candle, or picking up a heavy stone coaster. You don’t need it. And yet, you somehow leave the store with it.
This in-store trickery leads into today’s topic: how touching things can make them feel more our own. And what that means for buying behaviors.
Encouraging people to touch items in a store can lead to more impulsive purchases. In one field study, shoppers in a midwestern US supermarket were observed buying stone fruit. One small detail of the store environment varied for different shoppers. Some saw a plain fruit display. Others saw a small, 9 by 6 inch sign above the fruit display encouraging them to touch the fruit (“Feel the freshness”).
As anyone who has been in a supermarket knows, people don’t aimlessly wander around approaching fruit displays. Nearly everyone who approached the fruit display went on to buy fruit. But did the sign have any effect on how people felt buying fruit?
People who bought a fruit from the display were given a short survey and reported how planned or unplanned their decision to buy fruit was that day.
The sign seemed to have an effect. People reported more unplanned, impulsive peach and nectarine purchases when they had seen a sign encouraging them to touch the fruit.
Image source, annotations added. People who saw a sign encouraging them to touch fruit reported that their fruit purchases were more impulsive. This was the case both for people who had a high and low “need for touch” (NFT).
Touching things inside a store might end with us buying stone fruit or scented candles that we weren’t planning on buying. But why?
Touch and own
Controlled studies in the lab reveal how touching items changes how we think about them.
The basic idea is that touching an item increases our perceived ownership of it, which has downstream consequences. One of the core ways that we can come to feel ownership of an object is by controlling it. When we grab a scented candle, lift it up from its display table, and hold it in our hands, we are physically controlling its location and state (we could easily break the candle by opening our hands and letting it drop to the ground if we wanted to).
In what is known as the endowment effect, we value objects that we own more highly than identical objects that we don’t own. So, it follows that perceiving that we own an object should likewise increase how much we value it.
One lab study examined what effect touch and imagination have on perceived ownership and value. In this study, 231 college students saw a product—a slinky or a mug—in front of them on a table. They received different instructions about how to interact with it. Half were encouraged to touch it. Half were asked not to.
Next, people spent a minute contemplating the object. Half were simply asked to evaluate it. The other half were asked to imagine taking the product home with them (e.g., where would they keep the mug?).
After the contemplation period, people rated how much they felt like they owned the object (example rating item: “I feel like this is my slinky/mug”) and placed a dollar value on the object.
Let’s start with the people who simply evaluated the object (i.e., didn’t imagine taking it home). Touching the object changed how they felt about it. Those who had touched the mug or the slinky felt more perceived ownership over it than those who hadn’t. They also placed a higher value on the object – around 24% more than those who were not allowed to touch it.
Imagining owning the object made a difference, but only for those who weren’t allowed to touch. Those no-touchers who imagined owning the mug or slinky felt more perceived ownership of it. They also valued the object more—around 32% higher than those who had not imagined taking the item home. In contrast, imagination didn’t do anything for people who were allowed to touch the object.
Image source, annotations added. For those who simply evaluated an object, touch increased perceived ownership and value. For those who did not touch an object, imagining taking it home increased perceived ownership and value.
Since the comparisons above can get confusing, let’s sum up. First, touching an object can make us feel like the object is more “ours” and lead us to value it more. Second, if we’re not allowed to touch an object, imagining that we own it can do the same.
What about real ownership?
Touch can also lead us to feel more ownership over something that we already own.
Another experiment tested the effect of touch on object owners, as opposed to shoppers or recipients. In it, 71 students were given a mechanical pencil and told they would keep it unless they chose to sell it. Half of them were simply shown the pencil. Half were handed the pencil and encouraged to touch it.
Everyone rated how much perceived ownership they felt over their new pencil and how much they’d have to get paid to sell it. Next, a random draw determined a price. If the price met a given participant’s sell price, they’d have to sell it and walk out of the experiment with the cash. If not, they’d keep the pencil.
Those new pencil owners who had been allowed to touch their possession felt more ownership than those who hadn’t. They also asked for more money to sell their pencils -- $2.96 vs. $2.09, a difference of about 42%.
This finding reminds me of browsing online marketplaces. You see a listing and think “how can anyone possibly think this is worth this much?”. A local parents’ group is particularly egregious. People frequently try to sell a heavily used kid thing that cost hundreds of dollars for $5 or $10 less than they paid for it. I’ve even seen a listing where someone tried to sell something for more than what it cost new.
So, now I know: don’t touch and post. Thanks to the endowment effect, we already overestimate how much our things are worth. Touching items before posting them for sale might make us into tough, perhaps even unrealistic, negotiators.
OK so touch can make us feel more ownership over objects and to value them more. That’s all well and good in the physical world, where touch is possible. But what about digital experiences? A lot of our shopping now happens entirely online, a universe that, at first blush, seems to be devoid of touch.
It turns out that touch is still relevant, just in another form. The interface that we use to interact with objects on a screen matters.
One study found that interacting with a pictured object through a tactile interface (think: phone, tablet, or touchscreen computer) can increase our perceived ownership and value, similar to the effects of real touch in the physical world.
In this study, 56 students evaluated two types of products. Touch was important for one, a college sweatshirt, but less so for another, a walking tour of New York City.
People were given a shopping scenario for one of the products and shown a choice of options on a website. They could open any of the options to see a detail page with more information about the product. After looking around, they chose one of the options.
People navigated this website with different interfaces: a mouse, a wireless touchpad, or a touchscreen. The touchscreen was the most tactile since it allowed people to directly touch representations of the pictured products.
After choosing a product, people answered some questions about their choice. First, they reported how much they’d be willing to pay for the product. They were then told someone else wanted to buy the product they had just hypothetically bought. How much would they accept to sell the item?
The price that people would accept to part with their new possessions was higher when they had made their selection on the touchscreen ($67.70) than when they used a mouse ($47.30) or a touchpad ($44.15).
The ratio between the price that someone would accept to sell an item and the price they would pay for that item reveals the strength the endowment effect. And this ratio was higher when using a touchscreen. As an example, after examining sweatshirt choices on a touchscreen, people were willing to pay $43.40 for their chosen college sweatshirt. But they would need to be paid $72.80 to give up their sweatshirt – an increase of 68% above what they themselves would pay. This ratio was lower for the touchpad condition (21%) and the mouse condition (31%).
Image source. Using a touch interface resulted in a larger endowment effect.
Study participants also rated how much ownership they felt over their chosen product (example rating item: “I feel like (the product) is already mine”). People felt more ownership over the product they chose when they had used the touchscreen, rather than a mouse or touchpad.
The effect of the interface was stronger for the product for which touch was more important—the sweatshirt. The type of interface had a weaker effect on people’s perceived ownership of the chosen city tour.
A few ideas on how this applies to the real world. First, if done well, ecommerce on phone or tablet should rule. In 2019, over a quarter of e-commerce took place on mobile. While I couldn’t find reliable stats for this year, presumably those numbers are higher now. Phone and mobile ecommerce seem particularly well-suited for touchable objects.
That brings us to Instagram, which is now more online mall than photo sharing service. The kind of sponsored or sponcon items that come up (at least for me) are mostly things that can be touched—clothes, jewelry, home goods. Perhaps the fact that most interactions on Instagram happen on a phone helps explain how easily and effectively the app slid from photos to sales.
Finally, I think there could be ways to further increase the effect of touch on phones or tablets by integrating a tactile interaction with pictured items. I’m thinking of the kind of 360 degree photos that let people twirl around a pictured item around its axes. If experienced through a phone or tablet, I imagine this type of interaction would be particularly effective at increasing perceived ownership and value.
Whether in the physical or digital world, touch matters.
The holiday shopping season is about to get started. Stay safe with all those touchable in-store displays (or touchable looking images) out there!