26 May 2020 
19 February 2019

Consumers like the tactile experience

A world without brick-and-mortar stores? Even avid online shoppers say, ‘no, thanks’. A new study, led by the University of Arizona, examined consumers’ perceptions of today’s changing retail environment. University of Arizona researcher Sabrina Helm and her colleagues surveyed nearly 400 consumers about their shopping habits and perceptions of today’s retail environment.

Photo: freestocks.org on UnsplashPhoto: freestocks.org on Unsplash
Consumers who favored shopping in store want to be able to touch and handle products – especially clothing and food – before they buy them.
While shoppers were largely split on whether they preferred doing their shopping online versus in person, most agreed on one thing: If physical stores were to disappear completely, it would have negative consequences for society.

“We set out to figure out how consumers perceive and make sense of this change, and what they anticipate for the future – for themselves and for society – if this retail change is persistent,” said Helm, an associate professor in the UA Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

From 2016 to 2017, store closures in the U.S. more than tripled to about 7,000. While the rise of online shopping isn’t entirely to blame, it’s certainly a major factor, Helm said, with e-commerce sales increasing 101 per cent between 2011 and 2016. Consumers recognize this, and they see themselves as the ones driving change in retail, Helm and her colleagues found. To find out how consumers feel about the way retail is changing, Helm and her colleagues first analyzed more than 1,600 comments made on online news articles written about store closures or the evolving retail environment. They then went a step further by conducting an online survey, in which they asked a different group of people a variety of open-ended questions about their shopping preferences and perceptions. Respondents who preferred online shopping cited many of the expected reasons: It’s fast, convenient and offers a wide variety of options. For some older people and those with certain disabilities or mobility challenges, online shopping was the only way to make purchases. And some people even said they like online shopping because it allows them to avoid interacting with people.
Those who favoured shopping in stores said they like the tactile experience. They want to be able to touch and handle products – especially clothing and food – before they buy them. Many also described going to the store as a pleasant social experience that they share with family and friends, and some, unlike their online shopping counterparts, said they enjoy interacting with strangers. Others even said that shopping was important to their physical health, as it was their primary form of exercise.

However, regardless of personal shopping preferences, when participants were asked to imagine a world entirely devoid of physical stores, most said it would be bad for society. “The majority said this would be terrible,” Helm said. “There’s a sense that brick-and-mortar stores are part of the social fabric of our society. If they disappear, many are concerned about the economy and what this will do for jobs and revenue for communities.”


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