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Shopping Senses: Where Do We Feel More At Home; Online Or In-Store?


Fashion Correspondent Abi Buller writes:

Consider the initial smell of a brand new leather jacket, or the sound of a chunky zip or buckle being fastened for the first time. Whilst each of these sensations can be replaced after card details are entered, confirmation email received, 3-5 days in the post, a signature, and an excited state of unwrapping, these can of course be experienced from the comfort of your own home. The element that cannot be replaced, however, is the physical retail space itself. Although people often complain about crowds and queues, isn’t there something exciting about the buzz of a shopping centre and the experience of being physically surrounded by tangible items, not to mention the often invaluable advice and inspiration from those around you as you select garments. In relation to the senses, the issue in question is particularly relevant to those which cannot be replaced by a screen-based alternative.

The benefits of online shopping are becoming more and more prolific in today’s instantaneous society. In tandem with clever e-commerce strategies across social media, the perpetual temptations of another ‘new season’, ‘sale season’, ‘every season’ purchase are all too familiar to fashion lovers and Instagram users. This desire for instant purchases is often as a result of clever advertising or supporting promotional text. Think of it as like an interactive billboard, where upon seeing an unavoidable image when you weren’t even out looking for it, you may find yourself stuck with that image, and therefore product, in your mind until you are able to buy it. However, in these circumstances, it is a lot easier to simply pass by such images, especially if they are not particularly memorable. On the other hand, if you had seen this same image online with a link directly to the online store, would you have been likely to have made an impulse purchase? Similarly, noticing a billboard image or shop window on your way home may not hold as great appeal because you probably have other things on your mind, and your primary focus will be on trying to get somewhere. Whereas online shopping is more often linked with spontaneity due to the association with mindless internet browsing. It has also been detected on eBay communities, that people are most likely to make online purchases on Sunday evenings, and sometimes even Monday mornings, often as a way to psychologically make the weekend seem longer than it actually is, and to ease the thought of facing another week at work.


But whilst you lazily flick through product after product, zooming in and out to view details and swiping to preview colour variations, have you really considered what you may be missing from the physical shopping experience? A courier and package turn up at your door and you squeal with excitement as you see the package you’ve been waiting for. You open it, try it on, and it disappoints because the cut is all wrong, the fabric has a funny texture, and it is simply not flattering. In store, this issue would have quickly been resolved in the changing room or even avoided whilst still on the rail. Although it can’t be denied that product imagery available in the online fashion sphere is very creatively and effectively presented, the experience of directly selecting clothing in the flesh is something not easily replaced. A 2014 Forbes article outlined that even whilst e-commerce seems to be growing (UK online sales are expected to rise by 18% in 2015), still 94% of purchases are made in physical stores, as opposed to online. Furthermore, a 2015 research article published on Business News Daily explained that 65% of the consumers part of the research process said they shopped in store to avoid delivery costs, while 60% said they liked being able to have the product immediately, and another 61% said they liked being able to try on the item before purchasing.

Imagine not ever having coat-hangers and clothes rails, not being able to take an escalator to your favourite section of the store and appreciating quirky visual merchandising (surely i’m not the only one who appreciates flying mannequins suspended from the ceiling, and playground-like structures which showcase the latest ‘It’ product.) These elements are as yet physically impossible to replace online. As is the responsiveness of a helpful sales assistant when you need an opinion.

There is also something quite satisfyingly familiar about the experience of being exhausted and laden with shopping bags, before finally being able to try on all your new purchases when home. Similarly, I think there is always more of a sense of the unexpected associated with physical shopping. While you may choose to go to a particular section of a website such as ‘dresses’, or prefer to shop by theme as in ‘partywear’, it is unlikely you will actually take the time to scroll through everything available on the ‘view all products’ section. You might therefore miss pieces you wouldn’t have normally selected; products which in-store may have caught your eye in the window or on a mannequin. Maybe you even saw somebody in front of you in the queue for the changing room holding something that would look just perfect with that shirt you just picked up. Being in a shopping centre or on a high street also encourages you to go into shops that wouldn’t normally be at the top of your browser history, but you decided to wander into because their oversized ‘SALE’ sign caught your eye, or they happen to have a particularly good window display this season.


Then, of course there is the sense of memory. The element which is linked very closely to our physical senses of smell, taste and touch. It has been proven that there is a greater sentimental value linked to garment purchases which have been made physically, as opposed to online. This is likely because of the retail experience associated with the transactional purchase. It is also often the case that people tend to prefer to shop physically for pieces which are needed for a particularly important event, or just pieces that they are willing to spend a greater sum of money on. It is then of course more important for them to make a purchase without the need for a return.

I must of course still acknowledge the obvious sense of convenience in accordance with online shopping, and this argument is relevant to a whole sector of people who possibly shop almost exclusively online. This is probably for lack of time, or simply lack of desire to shop, unless something is really needed. But if you are a fashion lover, then perhaps next time you consider shopping online, also consider the experience you could have had, and the products you may be missing. After all, surely shopping is too important not to be a socially enjoyed affair, as well as an overall sensory experience?


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