Virtual Packaging Lacks Sense

Strong packaging promotes confidence in a brand's products. At a bricks-and-mortar store, the tactile encounter with a package contributes to that confidence. But when packages become virtual -- as it does in e-commerce -- do consumers have any less confidence in the product?

Consider the evidence. A European public opinion survey published in March 2004 found that those EU citizens who do not use the Internet for shopping prefer to see and touch products, to go to shops, and to feel that they will receive after-sales-service at bricks-and-mortar shops. Two-thirds of those surveyed who were not interested in making online purchases said they needed to see and touch products they intended to buy. These concerns were separate from other e-commerce issues such as whether online payments are secure or whether information provided on websites is credible.

According to Herbert Meyers, co-author of The Visionary Package (Palgrave, 2005), "Packaging on the Internet lacks the ability to have any tactile contact with the consumer. This inability, plus the extremely small presentation of most packages on the Internet, make packages almost impotent on that medium." Speaking from personal preference, Meyers adds, "I do not use the Internet very much for purchases because I want to examine a product before I buy it, unless I am totally familiar with it already."

E-commerce is largely driven -- and largely limited -- by the trust consumers are willing to place in it. Unlike bricks-and-mortar commerce, e-commerce has yet to win the confidence of consumers; it is still struggling to build trust, a weaker form of confidence. Because trust always involves an element of risk, economic relationships based on trust tend to be less permanent than those based on confidence. However, with enough positive reinforcement, trust can eventually evolve into confidence.

Says Davis Masten, chairman and catalyst at the design research firm Cheskin, "In our experience, people are less likely to switch brands over the Internet than they will in a normal retail context. There's the trust level -- you don't have all the senses. You don't have all the sensory input. People tend to stick with what they know in places that they don't fully trust."

The social anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued that human beings develop trust based on sensory impressions. Of the five senses, we rely most heavily on sight and sound. But taste, scent and touch also play significant roles in our experience of the world. High technology has still not found a way to conveniently convey the three proximity senses over the Internet, and according to Professor Luca Chittaro of the University of Udine (Italy), that's not likely to change any time soon. "I do not see short-term opportunities for tactile and olfactory cues, because consumers do not have, and are not going to have in the near future, appropriate hardware at home for that," says Chittaro.

Meanwhile, Professor Robert LaRose of Michigan State University believes that, lacking alternative sensory pathways, commercial websites will instead attempt to overwhelm us with visual and auditory cues. But email alerts, pop-ups and sound bytes often come across as more intrusive than inspiring of trust.

Early predictions were that e-commerce would appeal more to our rational natures than to our emotions. Because it takes time to search the Internet, e-commerce should discourage impulsive buying. And while the Internet includes plenty of marketing hype, product reviews exist for those who are interested. Comparative price shopping is easier online than in stores. And the lack of physical contact with online products could make us more thoughtful about Internet purchases.

But several years ago, a study found that those consumers who do make online purchases are more impulsive than those who do not buy online, that they are less averse to risk (more trusting), and are less brand and price conscious. This expression of trust has an emotional basis, and although it may also be reasonable, it is not completely rational. Unlike confidence, it does not rest on conclusive evidence.

Dr. Colin Huang of Sheffield Hallam University in Great Britain thinks it is possible to design virtual packages that, like physical ones, make both rational and irrational appeals. Huang argues that online packaging can achieve the same qualities as physical packaging if there is a direct route for conveying product information and an indirect route that appeals to the viewer's emotions. He has, for example, found that people respond to interactive play in much the same way that they pick up things and handle them in a bricks-and-mortar store.

Interactivity would seem at face value to be a powerful alternative to tactile encounters. The Gap currently has a highly entertaining website that lets you try on -- and take off -- clothes in a virtual store. After you have found something to your liking, the website directs you to the checkout counter.

But can high-tech wizardry convey the same sense of trustworthiness as touch? In Touching (Harper & Row, 1986), Ashley Montagu wrote: "To shut off any of the senses is to reduce the dimensions of our reality, and to the extent that that occurs we lose touch with it; we become imprisoned in a world of impersonal words. The one-dimensionality of the word becomes a substitute for the richness of the multidimensionality of the senses, and our world grows crass, flat, and arid in consequence."

Montagu traced much of the impersonality of modern life to the absence of sensory experience. And while some shoppers may prefer the anonymity of e-commerce -- there is, after all, no chance of running into a close acquaintance during a potentially embarrassing online transaction -- bricks-and-mortar is not without its allure. Observes Meyers, "There is a certain amount of adventure and change of pace in going shopping, vis-à-vis sitting in front of a computer screen."

In bricks-and-mortar stores, consumers come face to face with the sensory qualities and emotional triggers of the physical package, and with the multi-dimensionality of the shopping environment. Browsing in the store brings up tactile stimuli, and increases the likelihood that a purchase will be made impulsively. If a shopper is satisfied with an impulsive purchase, there is a good chance that he or she will make others later.

Not surprisingly, a strong synergy has arisen between online and bricks-and-mortar shopping. Consumers may first gather information about products they are interested in on the Internet. But they may go the store where they can touch the items when it comes to making the purchase. On the other hand, if someone buys an expensive product online, he will probably have gone to the store to look at it first, and then checked the Internet for the best price. According to Professor Hope Corrigan of Maryland's Loyola College, retailers who sell through multiple channels can often increase sales. "Suppose you are a Lands' End catalogue shopper and Lands' End opens a bricks-and-mortar store in your location," she says. "Let's say you used to spend US$ 200 per year on the Lands' End catalogue. Now you spend US$ 150 on the catalogue and US$ 150 in the store. And you spend another US$ 150 online." In the case of online purchases, Corrigan adds, "If it's not what you expected, you can return it to the bricks-and-mortar store. As you do so, you may see and buy some jeans that you hadn't ordered online. It gets you into [the] store. There are tie-ins between the two."

"What all this means," says Meyers, "is that the Internet will grow but never replace bricks-and-mortar stores. The Internet will be a means of buying products that do not need special information, or a brand with which the consumer is sufficiently familiar to trust it."

Meyers does not see much in the way of change ahead for packaging, however. "If my vision is correct," he says, "packaging will need adjustments to be able to work equally well within any medium, with a special eye on the Internet." But he sees these changes taking place gradually and relatively imperceptibly. For the near future, anyway, it seems likely that the physical package will remain the touchstone of the product's authenticity.

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