People will pay 50% more for items they can touch

Chocolate torteYou're probably familiar with the effect of a sumptuous dessert tray wheeled to your table at a fine restaurant. When the cheesecake or torte or flan is within lunging distance, your salivary glands practically demand you order a slice. According to a group of researchers at Caltech, the same kind of marketing could be an advantage that could help brick and mortar stores in their fight with Internet-based commerce.

The group, led by professor Antonio Rangel and grad student Benjamin Bushong, studied the reactions of customers to text descriptions of an item vs. photographs of an item vs.actually being able to touch the item. They began by testing this reaction in food, and found that their test subjects would bid 50% more for items they could actually reach out and touch. They found no significant difference in bids between foods described by text and foods shown in photographs.

They then did the same test using trinkets from the school book store, and found that the customers were still willing to pay 50% more for items they could touch. The researchers then put the items behind a transparent shield so that customers could see that they were only an arms-length away but they could not touch them. In this case, the customers were not willing to pay more than they would for an item they saw in a picture or read about.

The researchers hypothesize that this is due to classic Pavlovian response; when an object is close enough to touch, "your brain activates motor programs that lead to your making contact with that item and consuming it," said Rangel.

These findings illustrate the difficulty high-end stores face in selling expensive goods such as perfumes and men's ties, profitable items that are tempting to shoplifters and therefore frequently kept behind glass. By allowing customers to pick up the items, the stores could charge more for them, but a few pilfered products could offset that profit. It also explains why a shrewd jewelry seller will encourage you to try on any piece you express interest in; once you touch it, you're well on your way to a purchase.

This is an advantage even the most creative online merchant will be hard-pressed to match. No matter how detailed the picture of an item I'm shopping for is on Amazon, it always feels like the screen of my monitor.

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