Fear of 'cooties' keeps shoppers from the till -- study

May 02, 2006

New research shows shoppers are much less likely to buy an article of clothing if they think another person has already touched it.

"Consumer contact with products is a double-edged sword. Prior research has shown people like to touch products, but now we've found that they really don't like it if someone else has touched them first," said Dr. Jennifer Argo a professor in the University of Alberta School of Business.

Argo and her colleagues found that not only were shoppers much less inclined to buy a shirt if they believed someone else had already touched it, shoppers also indicated that the value of the product had been diminished if they knew it had been touched. The researchers also determined that "disgust" was the underlying reason for the participants' opinions, and that the level of disgust increased as the perception of the extent to which the article had been touched or tried on also increased.

The results of the research are published this month in the Journal of Marketing.

The researchers constructed an elaborate experiment in the U of A bookstore that involved more than 200 participants. Argo instructed participants to enter the store and look for a specific t-shirt. The participants believed they were sent to evaluate marketing aspects of the store; however, they were, in fact, being set up for a survey to see if they wanted to buy the t-shirt.

Using text messaging with store employees, Argo arranged for the participants to be exposed to one of a number of scenarios involving the t-shirt, ranging from learning that there was one shirt left in the store and another customer was trying it on, to learning that a shirt was hanging on the rack.

"The power of the effects of touch on the products surprised me, especially that it would carry over into how much people said they would spend to buy it. People devalued the shirt even when there was no actual contamination, just the perception that it had been touched."

Argo believes retailers could learn from this study.

"I would eliminate any cues that indicated someone has touched displayed articles," she said. "I would keep them folded and refold them quickly--as many stores do--and I'd get clothes out of change rooms quickly and eliminate change racks."

"I think this research shows that shoppers display irrational behaviors," Argo added. "We come into contact with objects that other people have touched all the time, but I guess we never outgrow the simple notion of cooties, especially when we are reminded of them."
-end-
Dr. Jennifer Argo can be reached at jennifer.argo@ualberta.ca or 780-492-3900.

University of Alberta

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