Shopping With a Little Touch

Touch can provide a source of assurance, follow-up on intangible (e.g., visual) attraction, or express affection. The tactile (or haptic) experience of touching product items can be meaningful and significant to consumers in utilitarian as well as hedonic ways, particularly during a shopping process, pre-purchase. However, consumers seem to value less touch, and assign to it lower import. This tendency could be strengthened with the spread of online shopping, where consumers learn to make do more frequently without having products in hand reach before purchasing; withdrawing from touch has become only more acute due to associating tactile contact with the health risk from the coronavirus. But there are advantages and benefits to be appreciated in touching many types of products, therefore consumers should not give up on a haptic sensory experience too quickly or easily.

Sensory marketing receives increasing attention and growing interest from academics and practitioners in the past couple of decades. Aradhna Krishna (2012) offers a broad definition of this topic: “marketing that engages the consumers’ senses and affects their perception, judgment and behavior“. From a research perspective, sensory marketing implies greater emphasis on “understanding of sensation and perception as it applies to consumer behavior” (p. 333, [1]). Vision gets the most attention in research as well as in applications (e.g., advertising, product design), as a greater part of sensorial information received and processed by humans is visual. Yet, an important tenet of sensory marketing is looking at and appealing to the array of senses — vision, auditory (sound), touch, smell, and taste. Accordingly, Krishna dedicates her elaborate review to the four senses besides vision (to which she relates briefly), including conceptions and research findings concerned with the sense of touch. Furthermore, she discusses the relationship of sensation with perception, cognition and emotion.

Moreover, the senses do not operate in isolation — they interact between them, such as by completing information or enhancing the perception and impression of sensation of one sensory mode by another. For example, haptic sensation can confirm ‘predictions’ of shape and texture suggested by visual perception, enhance the visual impression once touch is applied, and augment missing visual information (e.g., obscured details). On other senses, visual and sound inputs are often connected (i.e., audiovisual experiences). Additionally, perception of tastes is much dependent on complementary input from all other senses (e.g., taste combined with smell, touch, and sight of food), necessary for obtaining more refined discrimination among and identification of varied flavours beyond the pure tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour, plus ‘umami’ (implying ‘savoury’ or ‘deliciousness’). [1, 2]

Sense is one of the five modules of experiential marketing — together with feel, think, act, and relate — as postulated by Bernd Schmitt (1999). Brand or corporate expressions are built upon sensory experiences. In turn, a sensory experience is based on (a) primary elements (for touch, these are attributes such as material and texture); (b) styles combine primary elements to create more consistent and distinct experiences (e.g., solid or soft, minimalist or ornamental); and (3) themes add meaning and content to styles, which transfer to or reflect on the brand image (e.g., create a story or mental imagery for the brand supported by mental anchors, reference points or memory cues in the themes). The overall impressions of customers are constructed from the integration of styles and themes. [3]

When it comes to the relations of consumers with product objects, a ‘need for touch’ may serve two main purposes: (1) Instrumental Need for Touch is aimed at gathering information about a product of interest through touch, which can help an individual get a more direct grasp (literally and mentally) of physical attributes of the product, and first-hand assurance of its quality; (2) Autotelic Need for Touch is exploratory and hedonic, meant for enjoyment, with potency to evoke more pleasant emotions. Peck and Childers (2003) developed a measurement scale with 12 items that covers aspects of both dimensions of Need for Touch (NFT), instrumental and autotelic [4]. Instrumental NFT takes effect when a consumer has an intention in mind to buy a certain type of product and is seeking more information before making a purchase decision; by touching and handling a product item, the haptic contact can allow the consumer, for instance, to feel its surface texture and softness, or assess its weight and temperature (e.g., warm/cool). Autotelic NFT, on the other hand, arises with no prior intention to buy, where the gesture to touch is impulsive; it can be driven by curiosity or visual attraction to an object, but a pleasant haptic experience can lead to impulsively purchasing the likened product. However, individuals differ in the extent of their need for touch, which may influence, for example, their perceptions or behaviour.

  • Items-statements related to Instrumental NFT refer to ‘placing more trust’ in a product, confidence in purchase (e.g., ‘I feel more comfortable purchasing a product after physically examining it’) as well as assurance of product quality / value (e.g., ‘The only way to make sure a product is worth buying is to actually touch it’).
  • Items-statements corresponding to Autotelic NFT refer to pleasure (e.g., ‘Touching products can be fun’), impulsive behaviour (e.g., ‘When walking through stores, I can’t help touching all kinds of products’), and exploration (e.g., ‘When browsing in stores, it is important for me to handle all kinds of products’).
  • Since the instrumental and autotelic forms of need for touch seem to have differing meanings and consequences, it raises the question whether it is justified to include them in the same scale. Following a series of models tested, Peck and Childers conclude that the two dimensions are correlated highly enough to justify including them in a unified NFT scale, whereby such a scale is superior to keeping two separate instrumental and autotelic scales; yet they also find that there is importance to distinguishing between the two dimensions (‘sub-scales’) of NFT as they reveal indeed different meanings and implications of touch, adding explanatory value to the whole scale.

While for many kinds of products touching a product item can be usefully informative, products differ in the degree to which the product invites or motivates consumers to touch it. A clothing garment, for example, is not the same as a book, so the relevance or benefit of touching varies, especially for those with higher NFT (they will also know better the differences than those with lower NFT). The motivation to touch a product for examining it before purchase would be determined by how well consumers can discriminate between alternatives in a product category based on material attributes, namely texture, softness, weight and temperature. As explained by Peck and Childers (2008): “If a product category varies in a diagnostic way on one or more of these attributes, consumers will be more motivated to touch the product prior to purchase” [5, p. 206]. (Note: Product shape will be addressed later in connection with vision.)

For illustration, let us consider a few product examples with focus on instrumental NFT and autotelic NFT:

  • Applicable to Instrumental Need for Touch:
    • A sweater or shirt — a shopper may touch the clothing item to try and assess how comfortable and pleasant it will feel on one’s skin, such as how soft and smooth is the fabric or stiff and rigid (a shopper could do so before purchase or as an initial test before trying it on for fit);
    • Fruits & vegetables — a shopper may pick and touch, for instance, an orange, a banana, a tomato or an eggplant to feel if they are reasonably soft or hard (not ripe enough or too ripe), and it may also help to detect less visually discernible blemishes (fresh produce hence appear less appropriate for online shopping compared with other products, particularly if contained in packs like cream cheese);
    • Laptop computer — holding up the laptop computer would allow estimating its weight;
    • Ceramic tiles — graphic decorative patterns on a tile (for floors or walls) can be viewed, yet a consumer may better feel its physical texture through touch, if it is smooth, flat or carved, and having embossed decoration (e.g., lines, circles) — one might also be able to sense the coolness of a ceramic tile (compared relatively to warmth of wooden surface of furniture or parquet).
  • Applicable to Autotelic Need for Touch
    • A cashmere or merino wool sweater — just by the coloured and airy look of it a shopper might be tempted to take up the sweater to feel how soft and warm it is in the hand, like padding;
    • A furry animal puppet — they often look so cute and empathetic on the desk or shelf, sometimes amusing, that some shoppers cannot help reaching out to hold the puppet (e.g., dog, bear, sheep, fox), feeling warmth, comfort and joy, then affectionately buying it to take home;
    • A chilled can or bottle of drink on a hot day — a consumer may feel urged to experience the chill of the can or bottle in hand (or on neck and cheek) to cool from the heat outside, and then possibly proceed to consume the drink itself.

The need of touch by consumers suggests several implications in different contexts of physical contact (as reviewed by Krishna [1]):

  • Humans touching products: This kind of touch has become especially relevant with regard to online shopping where consumers order products from distance, without physical approach to the products they buy — it has been shown in experiments that consumers high in overall NFT become more frustrated when prevented from touching a product; they are more confident in their product evaluations when they can feel the product (a written description may alleviate somewhat their frustration). Consumers with low NFT on the other hand were indifferent to whether it was possible for them to touch the product or not.
    • Peck and Childers [4] have specifically shown that purchasing on the Internet is negatively related to instrumental need for touch (this holds also for two other ‘older’ forms of buying through direct media, by phone and catalogue). Additionally, they confirmed their expectation that buying through all three modes of direct purchasing is unrelated to autotelic NFT (i.e., the primary drive for buying online is materialising a concrete purchase intention and not for fun). In other words, consumers with lower NFT are likely to be more inclined to buy online.
  • Humans touching humans: A gentle or soft touch by another person can increase the inclination for generosity of the person being touched. For example, when a waiter makes a gesture of gently touching the customer (e.g., on the shoulder), this is likely to increase the tip he or she receives from the customer (possibly as a way to reciprocate the show of care or sympathy, not necessarily for actual improvement in service level).
    • Interestingly, it has been shown that a human touch alone is not enough to induce the exertion of a higher level of oxytocin, a hormone shown to lead to greater generosity towards strangers — it occurs in case of combination between a ‘friendly’ touch and the opportunity to trust another person and pass to him or her more money (i.e., suggesting that generosity is mediated by giving trust which can be encouraged with human touch — even a massage from a third person).
  • Products touching products: This can frequently occur in different situations in stores. Such an incident can matter, negatively, if one product which elicits disgust is touching another product that is ‘innocent’ (it has to touch, not just being close to, the other product). Krishna gives an example: if tampons are placed next to potato chips on the shelf or in one’s shopping cart, it will decrease the appeal of the potato chips (though usually within a bag). Other products that are susceptible to creating this effect may be trash bags, diapers, or cigarettes (it may also happen with certain types of food that some people find revolting).
    • It is argued that by ‘laws of contagion’, a target product may get ‘contaminated’ by the disgusting product. It can occur concretely, for instance when a fly (or worse, a cockroach) falls into one’s soup at the restaurant. It may be of effect, however, also by suspected contagion between people (customers who are strangers to the shopper) and products (clothes in a fashion store). It has been shown that customers are most aversive to approach clothing (try on a shirt) found in the dressing room, the most willing if the garment is found on the usual shopping rack, and with mixed attitude if found on a return rack — even though shoppers are told that all shirts were untouched by others.

The perceptions and judgements that follow sensation by any modality may be moderated and biased by the state of the human body when being stimulated (this is called situated cognition, and situated emotion if specifically it evokes perceived emotions), A state of body could be a still posture (e.g., facial muscles) or movement (e.g., gesture — situated action). Yet, an additional condition does not require external stimulation to invoke a ‘perception-like’ experience — if a person maintains in the head a mental imagery, it may be experienced as if he or she were actually, for example, seeing another person or hearing a melody. In the case of touch, consider for instance that you imagine in mind the haptic sense of a cup of hot chocolate in the palms of your hands when walking outside on a very cold day — that may invoke in you the feeling of warmth sought after, and trigger you to look for a real cup of hot chocolate.

Consumers can usually perceive and judge the shape of a product by viewing it {*}. However, their perception or experience of shape of the same object may differ, if they either see the object or grasp it (e.g., a discrepancy between seeing and handling a tall and narrow container versus short and broad container of liquid, known as the ‘elongation effect’ [1]). Consumers may also not be aware, while shopping, that just holding a product item in one hand (without looking at it), may direct them to choose another product item on the shelf that seems similar in shape to the one grasped in their hands (Streicher and Estes, 2016, [2]). The researchers show nevertheless that such visual-haptic interactions are moderated by instrumental need for touch and mediated by visual fluency of the product seen.

  • {Note *}: Exceptions include visual disability, but also bad lighting conditions and obstacles that block the field of view, in which cases that visual perception gets less reliable, haptic perception plays a greater role in recognising the shape of objects-products [2].

While engagement in sensory marketing increases, there seems to be a retreat of consumers from using their sense of touch. Nevertheless, so far as the COVID-19 pandemic is concerned, we can already see a major return to brick-and-mortar shops and stores. It is reasonable that consumers with higher need for touch were faster to visit stores again; they may need further time to gain more confidence to touch products again, yet their preference is likely to remain for in-store shopping over online shopping. The frequency in which consumers get to touch products may continue to decline, but it could be more moderated, qualified by types of products, especially for those with higher need for touch. That should give enough scope and playing ground for marketers to design and enact sensory experiences for touch, along with the other senses.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


[1] An Integrative Review of Sensory Marketing: Engaging the Senses to Affect Perception, Judgment and Behavior; Aradhna Krishna, 2012; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, pp. 332-351.

[2] Multisensory Interaction in Product Choice: Grasping a Product Affects Choice of Other Seen Products; Mathias C. Streicher and Zachary Estes, 2016; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26 (4), pp. 558-565

[3] Experiential Marketing: How to Get Customers to Sense, Feel, Think, Act, Relate to Your Company and Brands; Bernd H. Schmitt, 1999; The Free Press

[4] Individual Differences in Haptic Information Processing: The “Need for Touch” Scale; Joann Peck and Terry L. Childers, 2003; Journal of Consumer Research, 30 (December), pp. 430-442.

[5] Effects of Sensory Factors on Consumer Behavior: If It Tastes, Smells, Sounds, and Feels Like a Duck, Then It Must Be A…”; Joann Peck and Terry L. Childers, 2008; in Handbook of Consumer Psychology (Editors Curtis P. Haugtvedt, Paul M. Herr, & Frank R. Kardes) [Chapter 7, pp. 193-220]; New-York & London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group).