Why should online merchants care about customers’ emotions?

Guest writer Written by Guest writer - Aug 3, 2016

Emotions are an essential part of a consumer's shopping experience. How do emotions connected with shopping differ between a physical store and an online store? Why should a merchant care how their customers feel during the shopping process?

Shopping and emotions in a brick-and-mortar environment

Traditionally, shopping has meant time dedicated to browsing and purchasing items and services. Behind this has often been some sort of conscious need: a need for new clothes for a party or the coming school year - or people have simply gone window shopping.

People usually shop on a Saturday after the work and school week. One typically wears something nice and meets up with a friend or family, perhaps make an outing of it.

At the store, you browse, try things on and make purchases; perhaps also make some unexpected finds, i.e. impulse purchases. Some stores will make you uncomfortable, but that's part of the shopping experience: you get hot, and sometimes you must, or can, wait for assistance or stand in line at the cash register.

The store’s background music also affects the customer's mood. Stores also have scents or odors, and the staff adds to the atmosphere with their expertise or lack thereof.

Sometimes the salesperson will recognize you and know what you came to buy. You’ll also exchange some idle chitchat. Items are placed in a shopping cart and taken to the cashier before leaving the store. There they are paid for typically with cash or card.

Shopping can be exhausting and occasionally taking a break at a restaurant or café is needed to restore depleted energy levels. At the end of the shopping trip, heavy bags weigh you down but you still need to get them home using either the car parked in a parking garage or via bus.

The emotional experience continues at home, where at the end of the successful day purchases can be tried on and shown to others. It was nice to go shopping and find some good deals.

How is shopping ideal for online stores?

With online stores, shopping has changed: Instead of a conscious need, the push to go shopping often arises out of an external impulse, such as an advertising banner or email. These create a false feeling of exclusiveness: Text that says "SPECIAL OFFER - only for you - 24h!" is usually not a real offer, isn't just for you and isn’t valid for only 24 hours.

On the other hand, online stores and their products can be browsed: besides momentary impulses it can also be routine that an online shopper checks out stores they're familiar with and browses products available.

In any case, people no longer dedicate time specifically for shopping; online shopping typically takes place during moments when there is nothing else to do. It can be a way of passing spare time, or even spending one's personal "quality time". Friends and family are rarely invited to online shopping excursions.

An online shopper may select interesting clothes and other items into a shopping cart with no intent of buying them, just to pass time.

On the other hand, an online shopper is less likely to make impulse purchases - or if they do, it’s because returning items is easy.

An online shopper won't stand in line, there's no music and online stores don’t have scents or odors. In online stores, salespeople are notably absent. There’s no one to search for clothes for you or to provide their opinion about the suitability of a specific item. At their worst, online store’s photos are small, their colors distorted and product and size information incomplete.

An online merchant does not know or understand their customers as well as the salesperson at a brick-and-mortar store, even though they may collect lots of detailed data about their customer's actions.

When shopping online, you can't immediately get your friends’ opinions about a piece of clothing, you need to send them a link and wait for a response. Also, there are usually no breaks - you can drink coffee effectively while your other hand is browsing through an online store on the computer. An online shopper can also relax while shopping by being dressed comfortably and having a beer or a glass of wine - the checkout won't care about the customer's appearance or whether they're drunk.

"Catch-and-release" or a completed purchase? 

After the online shopper has placed items into their cart, the checkout stage begins. Online shopping often ends at this stage and the shopper moves on to the next store: The online shopper has browsed to their satisfaction and may go check out the selection of other stores, leaving their cart at the checkout much to the merchant’s dismay. 

Merchants tend to compare this scenario to that of a brick-and-mortar store where customers would repeatedly take full shopping carts to the checkout without purchasing. This would certainly indicate issues with how the store is run. Instead, an online shopper may never have intended to purchase the items in their cart and this scenario should be compared to window shopping or the fishing term ‘catch and release’.

If the online shopper isn’t just browsing and has decided to purchase the items in their cart, they face the checkout process - which at its worst may include lengthy legal terms. Before or when paying, the shopper has to remember, or usually find, their log in for that specific online store, payment details and security codes like online bank credentials.

An online shopper also doesn’t get to enjoy their orders the same day, or even the next day. They have to wait days, even weeks, during which their emotions and expectations may fade.

Especially, if the online store hasn’t provided realistic images and size information about their products, there’s usually the annoying process of returning or exchanging the product.

Why should an online merchant care about customers’ emotions? 

Imagine being at the local department store and only being provided with small, skewed color images of clothes, incomplete product information and incorrect size charts of the clothes you are interested in. When you’ve guessed you size, you put your items in the cart and go to the checkout to pay for them.

Before you can buy the items, the salesperson hands you a bunch of legal text and asks you to confirm and sign the purchase and delivery terms. Your purchases will be available for pickup in 3-7 business days, or can be delivered to your home for an extra fee. The salesperson also asks for your username and password, and if you don't have one, you need to register.

Actually, there wouldn't be a salesperson instead there would some sort of machine. Even if there isn't a line behind you, you don’t have small children with you and it’s not hot in the store, you still might not read or sign the legal text or buy anything. At the very least, this kind of experience would leave you with an unpleasant feeling.

How can some of the customer expertise from brick-and-mortar shopping be brought to online stores? Online stores obviously still have a lot of room for development in terms of the shopping experience, particularly the emotional aspects.

At its simplest, creating emotional experiences would mean paying attention to the audiovisual environment and the fluidity of the purchasing process. A store that is beautifully designed and well cared for is also nice to visit online.

Products with realistic images and complete descriptions will certainly be returned less. The purchasing experience should also not be allowed to fade while waiting for the delivery of the order.

At best, it's possible to build a personal shopping experience and a connected emotional experience for online stores.

A first step in this direction is providing an (almost) real-time chat service. However, creating an emotional experience for online stores requires in-depth understanding of the customer in a digital environment, and research in this area is in its infancy.


Lauri_Frank.pngLauri Frank
Research professor
University of Jyväskylä

Doctor of Economic Sciences, Lauri Frank, works as a research professor of digital services at the University of Jyväskylä's Agora Center. He is also a docent of technology studies at the Lappeenranta University of Technology.

Lauri's research focuses on digital products and services, especially related consumer behavior and business models. He is currently the research project leader for Need4Speed and Biogame research projects at the University of Jyväskylä and participates in the creation of the Digi50+ project.

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