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Dr Rajesh Bhargave, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Imperial College Business School, examines whether an in-store reminder of the Internet can influence retail purchases

Scenario: you’re in a store shopping for a new digital SLR camera – a relatively big purchase. You speak to the salesperson who explains all the different features of a particular model you have been eyeing. They go into detail about the memory, pixels, speed, Wi-Fi capability and variety of different lenses and accessories you can purchase. You’re no camera expert, and although you know these product attributes may be important for using the camera, you assuredly say to yourself, “I’ll just look it up online later.” The Internet is like a tiny expert in your smart phone, with all the information you could ever need to know, so you don’t need to hang on the salesperson’s every word before making your purchase. Suitably reassured, you proceed with the purchase and look forward to all the great pictures you’re going to take.

Brands today are expected to have websites, but how can communicating this fact in-store encourage someone to make a purchase?

That feeling of, “Oh, I’ll just Google it later” might sound familiar – but, in reality, it’s a fairly new phenomenon. Brands today are expected to have websites, but how can communicating this fact in-store – perhaps referencing online help sections, buying guides, and detailed product information – encourage someone to make a purchase?

Studies have looked at consumer behaviours that take place entirely online (e.g. e-commerce, online social networking, etc.), but less is known about how the Internet changes behaviour in offline (brick-and-mortar) purchase settings. Myself and two colleagues in Canada, Antonia Mantonakis (Brock University) and Katherine White (University of British Columbia), therefore investigated whether an in-store reference to online information – or “cue-of-the-cloud”, as we have termed it – would affect in-store purchase intentions and actual spending.

Consumers rely heavily on the Internet as a psuedo back-up memory, essentially blurring the distinction between what they actually know and what they can merely access online

We predicted that an in-store reminder of online product information would lead consumers to feel more confident about their grasp of product information and subsequently increase their intent to purchase. We ran a series of experiments, manipulating whether a cue-of-the-cloud was given and what product information consumers then learned. We found that when consumers are presented with relatively large amounts of information in offline purchasing situations, a cue-of-the-cloud can enhance purchase intentions and actual spending. This occurs because the cue increases consumers’ confidence in being able to retain and access the information seen in-store, which engenders positive feelings about the decision to buy.

Two aspects of this phenomenon were particularly interesting to us. One, our results suggest that consumers rely heavily on the Internet as a psuedo-back-up memory, essentially blurring the distinction between what they actually know and what they can merely access online. Two, we found that a product website can affect in-store purchasing decisions even when it is not visited, so long as it is prominent. This curious relationship between offline purchasing and online information demonstrates that real brick and mortar stores still have a place, but that a visible online presence can boost in-store sales.

Constant access to the Internet can positively affect consumers’ information processing – by giving them a sense of confidence in handling cumbersome information

Our research also speaks to a broader question about the role of the Internet in people’s lives. There has been a lot of negative coverage about how recent technological developments have compromised people’s decision-making and learning. In contrast, our research shows that constant access to the Internet can positively affect consumers’ information processing – by giving them a sense of confidence in handling cumbersome information. This is valuable to business owners and managers who want to blend online channels into the brick-and-mortar shopping experience – and offers benefits to consumers, who in turn can feel confident in their purchases.

Despite a growing role of the Internet in consumers’ lives, most purchases today take place in brick-and-mortar stores, not on e-commerce websites. Although the relative proportion of consumer purchases that occur online will likely increase, brick-and-mortar stores will surely continue to be an essential forum for shopping for many product categories. As such, examining the interplay between the increasingly pervasive presence of the Internet and consumer spending that occurs in physical retail contexts is an important question for retailers.

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Rajesh Bhargave

About Rajesh Bhargave

Associate Professor of Marketing
Dr Rajesh Bhargave is Associate Professor of Marketing at Imperial College Business School. His research and teaching specialises in the area of consumer behaviour.