Some Must Touch Before They Buy

Don't judge a book by its cover. Or a slurp of coffee by its cup.

Recent research might yield the latter advice, especially. A taste test showed that the feel of a cup can affect how tasty people find the beverage within it, especially those who have a "high need" for touch when it comes to assessing products.

A need-for-touch scale was developed by Joann Peck, a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. People with a high or low need for touch fall either above or below the midpoint on this continuous scale. When high need-for-touch people can't touch products, they become frustrated and lose confidence in their judgments of products, Peck said.

Using that scale, Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan and Maureen Morrin of Rutgers University, Camden, found that consumers with a high need for touch rated water served in a stiff cup as tastier than the same water served in a flimsy cup. Subjects with a lower need-for-touch didn't let the cup's stiffness influence their opinion of the beverage.

The results were detailed earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Consumers obviously rely on their senses of sight, and sometimes smell or hearing or taste, to determine what products to buy, but research on the role of touch has been sporadic.

"Touch research in marketing is still in its infancy, so researchers are just beginning to look more closely at multi-sensory phenomena," Peck told LiveScience.

The first Sensory Marketing Conference, organized by Krishna, took place this June at the University of Michigan to foster the growth of this field and demonstrate the relevance of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste to marketers. "Our senses are an inherent part of us," said Krishna. "They aren't going anywhere."

By connecting marketing research with findings from fields such as psychology and neuroscience, researchers hope to help marketers better understand the relationship between touch and perceived value. For example, a 2006 study in the Journal of Marketing found that making an organization's pamphlet more tangibly pleasing could increase the chance of receiving a donation. And a paper by Peck currently under review for the Journal of Consumer Research shows that touching an object increases a sense of ownership and leads people to be willing to pay more for the item.

Peck says results like these bear on online shopping, which is becoming increasingly popular, rising this year as high gas prices compelled more consumers to shop from home. A rise in online purchases from companies such as the Gap, Victoria's Secret and JCPenney has helped offset in-store sales losses this year, for example. And Forrester Research says that internet sales overall should surpass $200 billion in 2008, compared to $175 billion last year.

This rise of online shopping may help account for the interest in touch among people who study marketing, Peck said.

A digital image of a cell phone and a list of its functions, size and weight can compensate for the inability to touch it. But a photo on a computer monitor of a sweater labeled as "soft" is insufficient for people who prefer to feel a sweater's fabric before buying it, she said.

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