Marketers and academicians slice, dice, and categorize us into countless niches. A fertile topic for their research has long been how we shop, and more so now with e-commerce’s unrelenting growth.

Much studied regarding e-commerce is the influence of website imagery in promoting products. As early as 2002, researchers found that using 3D images triggers mental imagery that enhances the virtual shopping experience. A 2013 study we wrote about found that adding interactivity to 3D product images, such as 360-degree rotation, significantly increases purchase intention.

A new study published in November in the Journal of Business Research examined two niches of shoppers: those who have a high need to touch products before buying them online and those who don’t. Specifically, the two researchers wanted to know how viewing vivid 3D vs 2D product images would influence the two groups. They also wanted to know whether the effects would vary based on the type of product featured.

Yung Kyun Choi

Yung Kyun Choi

Yung Kyun Choi of Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea, and Charles R. Taylor of Villanova University in Pennsylvania, used images of a jacket and watch for the study. They wanted to measure differences in how study participants reacted to a soft material product and a more rigid geometric item.

Four sites with fake brand names were built. Two promoted the jacket, one in 3D and the other in 2D. The other two sites similarly promoted the watch. The participants, 207 undergraduate students in Seoul, were divided into four groups. Each group used one of the sites and then completed a questionnaire.

Choi and Taylor wrote that the results overall indicate 3D outperforms 2D in “improving consumers’ attitude toward the brand, purchase intention, and intention to revisit the website.”

Charles R. Taylor

Charles R. Taylor

As the researchers expected, the watch had more persuasive effects than the jacket, likely because of a lower perceived “need for touch,” or NFT, as in touch in the real vs virtual world.

Study participants with a low need-for-touch were more positively influenced by the 3D jacket and had an increased intention to buy. For those with high NFT, there was no significant difference in the effects of 3D and 2D jacket imagery. However, the high NFT group more favored the 3D jacket website and showed a higher intention to revisit the site.

Choi and Taylor said their findings suggest that “the virtual experience associated with a 3D website leads to more vivid and realistic product imagery and more favorable attitudes. Apparently study participants’ mental models, developed while interacting with a 3D image, cause illusions of quasi-sensory experiences, somewhat akin to direct product experience.”

What the study didn’t take into account are steps brands and retailers have taken to persuade those with high-tactile needs, as well as concerns about fit, to buy apparel online without touching it first. These include a mix of free shipping and returns, and in-store pickup and returns. 

Some companies, such as mens-only online apparel brand Todd Shelton, mail fabric swatches to prospective buyers, eliminating any uncertainty about the feel of the material. (This service persuaded one of us at Embodee to break his apparel budget and buy his first pair of pro selvedge jeans.)

Given continuing advances in haptic technologies that simulate the sense of touch, it’s inevitable that the NFT barrier will be broken. Besides viewing vivid interactive 3D imagery of apparel that accurately depicts drape, weave, and more--the service Embodee delivers to its clients, shoppers will also be able to feel what they see via vibrations from a touchpad, stylus, or other device.

And no doubt that will help apparel and footwear maintain or increase its share of online retail sales. According to market research firm Euromonitor International, the sector captured 20% of the $638.6 billion in total global online sales last year, the largest share among all sectors.