Marketing Department Study Offers Online Retailers Tips to Turn Browsers into Buyers this Holiday Season
December 05, 2013
A new study with implications for online retailers finds that the likelihood that shoppers will make a purchase online is directly related to the number of product options that are displayed and to how the product information is displayed – either visually or with text. The research, conducted by Claudia Townsend, an assistant marketing professor at the School, found that when larger assortments of products (i.e. many options) are displayed with images rather than text, shoppers are less likely to purchase a product. When it comes to a smaller selection of products displayed (e.g. four types of crackers or eight different nail polishes), it makes no difference in the likelihood of purchase whether or not visuals or text are used to share the information.
The study found that even though consumers prefer to see products visually, when the choice set is large, and presented visually, shoppers spend less time examining each individual option as well as the entire choice set. They also become more haphazard and less systematic in their examination compared to when words are used to describe the choices. With this “choice overload,” consumers are less likely to make a choice, which means no purchase. The findings, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, provide a warning to online retailers, particularly those selling products on mobile devices.
“There is a tendency for mobile app designers to use graphics almost exclusively,” said Townsend, who conducted the research with Barbara Kahn of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “This study shows that although images are attractive and fun, when a large product set is shown with images only, there is a tendency among consumers to gloss over them rather than make a purchase.”
Across five studies, the researchers had participants perform various tasks with product assortments similar to what a consumer might encounter online. In some studies participants were asked to choose whether they wanted to view product assortments presented visually in pictures or verbally in words. Across various product categories (crackers, nail polishes, mutual funds) there was a consistent preference for visual presentation. In other studies, participants were shown an assortment of products that was either small (4 or 8 options) or large (14 or 24) and was presented either visually or verbally. They were asked to a) rate the variety and complexity of product choice sets, b) to make a choice from the choice sets, or c) to perform a surprise recall task where they had to identify the options previously presented. The researchers used eye-tracking technology to examine exactly how consumers analyzed individual items as well as the overall choice set.
“Because consumers prefer to see products visually, we suggest that online retailers design a home page that uses visual information upfront, emphasizing ease-of-purchase and variety,” said Townsend. “They should then make the product offering pages more text based in order to cause the shopper to slow down, review each option more carefully, and buy.”