New research suggests that if consumers want to avoid making impulse purchases, they should refrain from handling goods while shopping, because merely touching an object increases feelings of ownership.

The research, published this week in the Journal of Consumer Research, also found that touching an object, if the experience is pleasant or even neutral, increases how much money consumers would be willing to pay.

Joann Peck, an assistant marketing professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, said in an interview that the research has implications for consumers, retailers and advertisers.

"Be very careful when you are shopping: if you don't want to buy, don't touch," she said.

"Touch increases your feelings of ownership and it also increases the amount you are willing to pay. I would caution people not to touch when shopping."

Imagining leads to buying

Peck and Suzanne Shu, an assistant marketing professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles, conducted four studies on the connection between touch and feelings of ownership and the effect of perceived ownership on the value placed on an object.

They found that consumers who cannot touch an object but can imagine owning it will have greater feelings of ownership and hence be more likely to buy.

Peck said the finding suggests online or catalogue retailers could be more successful by encouraging consumers to imagine owning an object advertised online or in print.

The study followed a warning in December 2003 from the Illinois attorney general's office that shoppers should be wary of retailers who urged consumers to hold objects and to imagine they owned those objects.

The basis of the warning was that holding an object and imagining it be your own could lead to unnecessary purchases. The researchers found support for the contention.

"In our research, we have evidence that the warning from the attorney general is valid. In four studies, we find that merely touching an object increases the feelings of ownership a person has for the object," the authors write.

Peck said all four studies involved undergraduate students holding objects for a very short period of time and then answering a series of questions. The objects used — Slinky toys, mugs, pencils, Playfoam sculpting beads — did not convey information.

She said the researchers believe that feelings of ownership would be even greater if the objects did convey information.

The researchers also found that if consumers have a positive or neutral response to touching an object, they are willing to pay more for it, but if an object does not feel pleasant to the touch, it decreases the amount they are willing to pay.

"For most products, the touch experience is positive or neutral, so merely touching a product usually increases how much a person is willing to pay for an object," the authors write.

Peck said previous research she has done on touching has found gender differences, and women tend to touch possible purchases when shopping more than men.