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Tablets facilitate impulse shopping for many

The mere touch can make you want to purchase

The simple act of touching a product on a tablet scree <ld/> appeared to greatly influence the desires of Boston College undergraduates who participated in the study.YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STUDIO PHOTO

Curbing impulse purchases can be a challenge for anyone on a budget.

But it might be even harder for shoppers to stop themselves if they happen to use their iPad to peruse the wares of online retailers. New research out of Boston College indicates that consumers feel a deeper affinity for products they touch on a screen than those selected using a laptop touchpad or a mouse.

When consumers participating in the study reached out and touched an image on a touchscreen, the experience nearly rivaled their feelings of touching merchandise in a brick-and-mortar store, according to the measure of satisfaction used in the study.


“It’s kind of surprising how strong the effect is,” said S.
Adam Brasel, a Boston College business professor and lead author of the study. “And we’re not necessarily aware it’s taking place.”

This holiday season, shoppers appear more connected to their iPads and touchscreen phones than ever, helping to drive online sales to more than one-third of all holiday purchases, according to retail analysis firm NPD Group Inc.

That’s because technology has made it easier for consumers to feel as if their iPads are an extension of themselves and easier for retailers to capitalize on those feelings, industry analysts said. Many e-tailers retain credit card information to allow shoppers to buy with a single click — or touch — to make buying easier as well as faster.

But the convenience and good feelings of one-touch shopping also carry the danger of quickly racking up debt, warned Michael Norton, a Harvard University professor and author of “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.”

“Buying feels great in the moment,” he said, “but debt can outweigh the happiness of buying things.”

Yet the simple act of touching a product on a tablet screen — rather than clicking a box with a laptop mouse — appeared to greatly influence the desires of Boston College undergraduates who participated in the study. To determine the attachment the young consumers had to the products they selected, researchers asked the students at what price they would resell their recent purchases. The higher the asking price, the more attractive the buyers found their purchases.


Online shoppers felt drawn to products selected on a touchscreen. They were willing to sell a sweat shirt for 168 percent of the original price, compared with 131 percent when they selected a product with a mouse and 121 percent when they selected a product using a computer touchpad. (The differences were not as great for a less tangible item — a city tour. )

Brasel said generally people shopping in brick-and-mortar stores will want about 200 percent of the original price if reselling.

Touchscreens by themselves are powerful, Brasel said, but even more so when the students owned their devices. Students who used an iPad they owned wanted 194 percent more than what they paid for the sweat shirt. Students who borrowed an iPad to shop wanted about 165 percent more.

As people gain more familiarity with devices like an iPad, it allows them to slip into a sort of autopilot mode when they are shopping online, buying without much thought, said Brasel. It’s similar to shopping in a familiar grocery store, where consumers pick up items almost automatically.

This nonconscious shopping behavior becomes apparent when grocery stores change their layout, leaving customers frustrated. “There’s only so much we can really pay attention to,” Brasel said. “If it’s not a mission-critical decision, [our brains] offload it and e-tailers can take advantage of it.”


Marshal Cohen, a retail industry analyst at NPD Group, said shoppers have become skilled at visualizing the product they want. Online retailers have grown more skilled at finding ways to give customers a sense of confirmation about their purchases by providing easy ways for them to comparison shop or read product reviews to help them feel like they’ve made the right choice.

“They used to say nobody would ever buy a diamond online. Not true. People are even buying homes without seeing them [in person] online,” Cohen said. “We are entering a period where we’re using our imagination rather than touch, feel, or smell. We’re using our brain differently.” Some surveys of online shoppers have reported that people believe they can imagine the smell of a perfume while shopping for scents online, for example, Cohen said.

John Wells, an associate dean at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, compared the online shopping world to a casino that uses chips instead of money. The goal is to help consumers forget that they are spending real money.

Wells, who has researched impulsiveness, said Amazon.com patented its one-click online checkout for similar reasons; many consumers turn back from a purchase if they have to enter all their credit card information.

“As interfaces get more sophisticated,” he said, “you will find yourself behaving in ways you didn’t expect.”


Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.