The power of touch could — but won't — be Amazon's Achilles' heel

Physical stores need to be re-envisioned to let the feel, smell and sounds of products sell themselves. It's a shame that retailers won't ever do that.

car touchscreen ts
Credit: Thinkstock

A recent AdWeek piece touched on how the five senses drive luxury purchases and found that touch was the most persuasive. In the never-ending effort of physical stores to try to deliver something that e-commerce sites can't, this would seem to be a piece of good news. In theory, it is. In practice, not so much.

The upshot of the report is contained in this quote from Bob Shullman, head of Shullman Research Center: "It's fascinating to me that 17 million adults ranked touch as their No. 1 sense and virtually half of these consumers — 48 percent — reported that they bought a luxury in the past 12 months. Touch-oriented consumers are the No. 1 purchasers of luxuries. This finding suggests to me that if a marketer is advertising a luxury that can be touched, the marketer should consider emphasizing the luxury's touchability qualities in the advertising." 

First off, the argument that "touchability qualities" should be stressed in ads misses the whole point. Let's assume that the item in question is an automobile's leather seat. The point is that the feel of high-quality leather polished and prepped properly is memorable, when experienced via the touch of a finger or the back of a leg. It's the experience that creates the memorable sensation. That's what motivates the buyer. A copywriter's phrasing that "seats are carpeted by buttery-soft leather" doesn't do the trick.

But that was AdWeek, and when in Rome…

Physical retail stores, on the other hand, have plenty of opportunities to expose shoppers to the textures and cushiness of its products, not to mention the smells of fresh baked goods (or a sizzling steak when selling a backyard grill). Even sight comes into play in brick-and-mortars, as viewing the product in person communicates so much more — even when limited to visual observations — than still photos or even video does from a web or mobile site.

By the way, if you want a peek into what the next-generation of m-commerce is going to feel like, check out The New York Times' NYTVR effort. Although the cardboard box feels, well, hokey, the way they shoot videos goes well beyond anything else I've seen the Web. When that effort makes the move into m-commerce at the likes of a Macy's or Target, look out.

But we're not close to being there yet. And until we get there, even visual sense is going to be a strong influencer for physical stores.

To turn this concept into revenue, though, requires retailers to rethink their physical environments and merchandising. Think about it: When you display products overwhelmingly via the hard plastic and cardboard boxes products ship in, you are surrendering to e-commerce. That's because you are hiding/blocking the actual product — and it's textual sensations — from the shopper, merely showing them the flat, 2-D photographs that they can more easily see on the Web and via a mobile device. If you're going to do that, why not just have your products shipped straight to an Amazon warehouse and be done with it?

Products of all kinds need to be released from their cages so customers can physically engage with them. Having one sample of maybe one-one-hundredth of your products on the shelf as a display sample won't do it, especially because your people allow that sample product to get beaten up. That's your representative product?

If physical retailers truly internalized this and made fundamental changes to their environment, not only would it increase direct sales (let your wonderful products sell themselves), but it would make your stores far more pleasant and closer to the experiences you want shoppers to have.

Here's the catch. Even if you do all of these changes, you're still going to lose a healthy chunk of those sales to online foes. In the classic showrooming sense, once you convince shoppers that they want this product, there is nothing to prevent them from clicking to Amazon and ordering it for 25% less.

That's change two. It involves associate training, using mobile-equipped associates to queue-bust (in-aisle checkout) and making your store a personal experience again. We need to regain the intimacy that retailers decades ago had, back in the land of corner drugstores and butcher shops and hardware stores. (Ok, I'll say it: pre-Walmart era.)

In those days, a customer going into a hardware store wasn't buying that hammer from Huntsman's Hardware. He was buying from Phil, the truly knowledgeable guy behind the counter. Phil made honest recommendations and also talked about his kids — and your kids — and local sports teams, and he became a person to you, not a clerk. Those customers would never click away and take that hammer sale away from Phil.

If a shopper can even find a store associate, it's a professional distant and sanitized relationship. And there's no hesitation to shop elsewhere for a 5% discount.

There is no way that e-commerce has a chance today against a store that lets customers touch, smell and hear their products and then offers to sell to them in a personal ,intimate fashion. In short, Amazon stock is looking pretty good.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
Windows 10 annoyances and solutions
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.