Rowan research: online grocery shopping surges but “need for touch” remains high for produce

Rowan research: online grocery shopping surges but “need for touch” remains high for produce


Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have flocked to online grocery shopping services, happily filling virtual carts with few considerations beyond price and availability. They know what they want and, for the most part, have little need to touch the products or services they’re buying.

An exception, says Rowan University’s Dr. Nina Krey, an assistant professor of marketing in the Rohrer College of Business, is for produce, with many consumers reluctant to buy if they can’t hold, turn, sometimes even smell fresh fruits and veggies first.

Krey outlined her findings in “The touchy issue of produce: Need for touch in online grocery retailing,” a study she co-authored with Frauke Kühn and Marcel Lichters, researchers at Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany. Their findings published June 10 in Volume 117 of the Journal of Business Research.

“Consumers have always expressed a preference to receive haptic input for certain products and one of those areas is groceries, particularly produce,” Krey said.

As a rule, she said, consumers are less likely to pay premium prices for produce online compared with what they’d pay in stores but many are not wholly uninterested in shopping for fruits and vegetables online, especially from a touch screen device.

Krey said one big lesson for online grocers is that if they employ a “touch surrogate,” a visual representation of someone whose hand physically displays and/or turns a piece of produce online, shoppers are more likely to buy it.

“The findings are important because online shopping, especially grocery shopping, is much more popular now than just a few years ago,” Krey said. “With produce, there is always a preference to touch it but when consumers use a touch screen it makes completing the purchase more likely. Our brain utilizes increased haptic input through touch screens as a symbolic form of touch experiences that would have otherwise been missing, while browsing through online grocery shelves.”

Krey said the study, which began over two years ago, was initially resisted by reviewers because its premise seemed obvious – of course consumers want to handle produce before buying.

“Some people thought that was just common sense,” she said. “But the question wasn’t one of if consumers were reluctant, but why.”

The answer is that consumers question quality if they can’t handle merchandise, particularly fresh produce, but their reluctance may be overcome through a good virtual “hands-on” experience.

“As soon as they’re touching the produce on screen they develop what we call psychological ownership, a well-established concept in marketing and psychology,” she said.

Aside from modelling produce and hoping consumers use touchscreen devices, Krey said if retailers embrace technology with high resolution images and the ability for potential customers to flip, turn and zoom in on produce, they just might become buyers.

To learn more, read “The touchy issue of produce: Need for touch in online grocery retailing.”