Contagion Effects in the Retail Environment
Jennifer J. Argo
University of Alberta
Darren W. Dahl
University of British Columbia
Andrea C. Morales
Arizona State University
Recently, marketing researchers have found that information obtained through physical touch plays a central role in the evaluation of consumer products. In fact, its importance in consumption has been cited as one of the critical factors that has limited the adoption of online shopping, an environment void of tactile information. Although prior research suggests that touch has a positive impact on consumer information search and product evaluations the goal of the current research was to show that consumer contact with products may actually be a double-edged sword for the firm. Specifically, while consumers like to garner information by touching products themselves, our research suggests that they will evaluate products less favourably when other consumers have touched the products first even when the products are objectively unharmed. We develope a theory of consumer contamination whereby consumes are thought to contaminate the products they touch.
In our research we propose that when consumers become aware that another consumer has previously touched a product, their evaluations of and purchase intentions for the product will decrease. We tested this prediction using a retail shopping environment and manipulating three factors that increased the salience that consumer contact had occurred (i.e., proximity to contact, time elapsed since contact, and number of contact sources), referred to as contamination cues. In addition to establishing the impact that consumer contamination has in a retail context, we also provide insight into the underlying process through which it operates by investigating the role of disgust.
Our research reveals that the increased salience of contact through a variety of contamination cues negatively impacts consumer evaluations of a touched product. When proximity to contact is closer and the number of contact sources is higher, consumer evaluations and purchase intentions for a touched product decrease. Interestingly, the results for proximity to contact only hold when a short period of time has elapsed since the product was perceived to be touched. When time since contact is longer, the effects of consumer contamination appear to dissipate. Further, we show that disgust operates readily in the domain of contamination in the consumption context. In particular, consumers lowered their evaluations of touched products because they felt disgusted by the contamination from other shoppers.
Significance of the Research for Managers
The findings for consumer contamination underscore the importance of management decisions related to store layout and design. While it is critical to enable consumers to touch merchandise, consideration should also be given to limiting how and where consumers touch products. Effective store design can provide opportunities and constraints with respect to consumer contamination. For example, instead of using product bins or table displays that encourage rummaging and searching, effective design of shelving and rack displays can minimize consumer handling of products. Further, a front room/back room layout that provides “fresh” products for trial can potentially mitigate contamination perceptions from the consumer. Retail environments where consumers try on merchandise (e.g., clothing, footwear) need to be sensitive to consumers viewing others handling their products.
Appropriate merchandising and well-managed product displays are also central in effectively addressing contamination concerns. Cues that a product has previously been used or touched, such as ripped tags or dishevelled displays will raise contamination fears and negatively impact consumer evaluations. Managers must make an effort to minimize the salience of contamination so that consumers are not motivated to think a given product has been contaminated. Effective merchandising of products can be useful in allaying and preventing contamination effects from materializing.
Employees need to be cognizant of the issues surrounding consumer contamination and have the ability to deal with consumer concerns in this regard. Employees must be mindful to remove the evidence of consumer contamination as quickly as possible in a retail environment. Refolding, restocking, re-packaging, and returning products quickly to shelf locations are examples of simple activities that can alleviate contamination concerns for consumers.
Finally, a company’s communication with consumers should also be sensitive to contamination. Advertising, promotions, and other communication efforts should be careful not to raise contamination concerns. Communication that highlights the incidence of consumer contact and identify who is touching products may result in contamination signals that alienate potential customers.
Journal Article on which this summary is based:
Argo, Jennifer J., Darren W. Dahl, and Andrea C. Morales (2006), “Consumer Contamination: How Consumers React to Products Touched by Others,” Journal of Marketing, 70(2), 81-94.
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