Can E-Commerce Meet Consumers’ Need for Touch by Using Augmented Reality?

XX min
Nov 14, 2022

What We're Covering 

  • The growing e-commerce landscape.
  • Why some consumers still prefer to shop in brick-and-mortar stores.
  • Recent research on whether augmented reality can satisfy the need for touch.
  • What the research means for marketers.


E-Commerce's Continued Growth  

There is no arguing that e-commerce is a monolith in the shopping world. Statistics courtesy of Statista.
  • By 2025, online shopping revenue in the United States will exceed 1.3 trillion dollars.
  • 46% of U.S. consumers search online before making a major purchase.
  • In 2020, e-commerce for apparel and clothing accessories brought in 16 billion dollars in the United States alone.

The e-commerce train shows no signs of stopping. However, despite the explosive growth, 56% of Americans still prefer shopping in person.

The first question is, with the ability to purchase almost anything at any time online, why do a majority of people still prefer shopping in brick-and-mortar stores?

Like many of life’s greatest questions, there are a myriad of answers. A commonly cited reason is touch. One problem with shopping online is that we can’t touch what we might purchase.

This may not be a big deal for some people, but for others, not being able to physically touch a product may dissuade them from making online purchases. Thus, we find ourselves in quite a quandary. How can e-commerce engage people who want to physically touch a product before they buy it?

One potential solution is augmented reality (AR). AR enables users to place a 3D object in a real-world space using a camera. It combines the real and virtual worlds.

Augmented reality piece of wood on a bedside table

Here, the user is using augmented reality to place a piece of wood on a nightstand. Pretty cool, right?

Despite how interesting and useful this technology is, we still have the same problem. AR is digital and we can’t touch the product.

Alas, we find ourselves faced with our big question. Despite being digital, can AR satisfy consumers’ need for touch?

Luckily for us, AR consumer research is on the rise and a recently published article in Psychology and Marketing can help us start to answer this question.


What Do We Mean by Touch?
Before we get into the studies discussed in the article, we need to say more about touch. There are two main classifications of touch.

The first kind of touch is autotelic touch. This is touch for the sake of touch. This is why some people hate e-readers and prefer to read physical books because, “It just feels nicer in my hands.”

The second kind of touch is instrumental. This is touch for the sake of evaluating attributes, usefulness, and quality. Instrumental touch happens whenever we pick up something expensive and can “feel” the quality.

Both types of touch play an important role when we interact with things. In the research we are about to discuss, the authors focused on consumers who have a high need for autotelic touch rather than instrumental touch. Someone described as high in need for autotelic touch is a person who would strongly agree with the statement, “Touching products can be fun.”


The Recent Research 

The authors discuss four separate studies aimed at answering our big question: Despite being digital, can AR satisfy consumers’ need for touch?

The first research study used an AR app created by the cosmetic company Sephora. The researchers found that consumers high in need for autotelic touch reported more hedonic and utilitarian benefits from using the app than consumers low in need for autotelic touch. Additionally, those high in need for autotelic touch evaluated the app and Sephora more positively.

Essentially, people who enjoy touching products had more fun using AR, saw more benefit from using AR, and rated the app and Sephora better than people who don’t enjoy touching products as much.

The second study put people into two groups. The first group was told to look at a lamp on the Amazon app. They were to look at the description, pictures, and use the app’s AR feature. The second group was also directed to look at the same lamp on the Amazon app but were instructed to only look at the description and pictures. Compared to people high in autotelic need for touch who did not experience AR, people who did experience AR reported more hedonic benefits from using the app and rated the app more highly.

The last two studies were similar to each other. These studies focused on consumers’ expectations rather than their experiences. More specifically, the researchers wanted to measure consumers’ expectations of app utility, attitudes towards a product and shop, and their intention to purchase. The study utilized a fictitious carpet shop. The researchers found that consumers with a high need for autotelic touch expected higher utility because of AR. Thus, they reported better ratings of carpets, the fictitious shop, and a higher intent to purchase.


Implications for Marketing & the Future

It appears that the tentative answer to our big question, pending more research, is yes, AR can satisfy consumers’ need for touch. This finding affects marketing in three key ways: 
  1. Augmented Reality may be a viable way to reach consumers who prefer to shop in brick-and-mortar stores because they can touch products. Thus, if e-commerce stores can capitalize on AR technology, they may benefit.
  2. Physical stores can benefit too. One option for physical stores is to include AR on print material. Think of a furniture catalog where consumers can scan a sofa with their phone and see it in their living room.
  3. When implementing AR, marketers need to be careful. Studies three and four found that consumers high in need for autotelic touch expected utilitarian benefits from using AR. However, in some cases, consumers experienced hedonic rather than utilitarian benefits (Study 2). There may be a disconnect between what people expect and experience. Marketers should include information about what to expect from using AR so consumers are not dissatisfied with their experience.
Looking toward the future, the development of haptic gloves may further augmented reality’s ability to meet consumers’ need for touch. Haptic gloves allow an individual to feel what is happening in a virtual space. In combination, AR would allow consumers to see a digital lamp and haptic gloves would allow consumers to feel the digital lamp.

AR appears to be a promising start for e-commerce stores meeting consumers’ need for touch. More research will help us better understand whether AR can substitute the need for touch. If the evidence continues to show that AR can substitute touch, we may one day be able to see, feel, and buy products from the comfort of our home.


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