Atmospheric Cues Online: How to Influence Purchasing Intent

Carefully planed atmospheric cues create a pleasant customer experience and subsequently increase purchasing intent in traditional stores. However, with the rapid growth of e-commerce, can such cues be manipulated in the virtual world?

30 August 2017


The matter of atmospheric cues in traditional stores has always been an important topic of consideration. Appropriate light, smell, polite personnel, understandable physical layout and more – all these cues combined together create a pleasant customer experience and subsequently increase purchasing intent. However, with the rapid growth of e-commerce, can such cues be manipulated in the virtual world?


Today online trading is an important part of shopping experience and world’s economy. Not awhile ago, BigCommerce published a report summarizing the main e-commerce trends in the USA. They claim that 51% of Americans prefer to shop online and that nearly 80% shop online at least once a month. A few years earlier eMarketer published a report predicting UK retail e-commerce sales to reach £60 billion in 2015 and around £87 by 2019.


As e-commerce progresses, it is no wonder that many businesses pay closer attention to the quality of their websites’ interface. It is especially important in the B2C retail world. Just like in traditional stores, poorly designed atmospheric cues online may stop a potential consumer from considering a purchase. Surely it is impossible to control physical cues like smell or lights online, but it is possible to influence user’s positive impression.


For a start, it is worth saying that the topic of online atmospheric cues, unlike traditional stores, has been poorly investigated in scientific literature. However, what is known as of today is that perceived irritation has a negative effect on online behaviors, trust, attitude, satisfaction or purchasing intention. In scientific publications perceived irritation is described as a feeling of displeasure evoked by irritating stimuli, which is anything that goes against consumer expectations. In e-commerce this term refers to poorly designed websites. So what are the antecedences of perceived irritation and what is their predictive power?


When asked about the most important component on a website, it is mainly the visuals that many people would refer to. However, an article published in the Computer in Human Behavior Journal by Bassam Hasan (2016) tells us that such elements are not necessarily the most important. In his research, the author hypothesized that poor visual, navigation and information design will have a positive effect on consumer’s perceived irritation. In other words, any of these factors (if badly constructed) will irritate consumers. While this turned out to be true, the real question is which one of these antecedents has the biggest influential power and thus to which we should pay closer attention when constructing a B2C website.


During the study a group of people was asked to purchase a white shirt online on the same website. Next, the author evaluated participants’ opinion about the store’s visual, navigation and information design and their perceived irritation. The results indicated negative correlations for all 3 factors. In other words, the less participants liked the website components (visual, navigation, information) the more irritation they reported. However, because correlation does not mean causation it cannot be stated that perceived consumer irritation is caused by poorly designed website. This is why the author went on and conducted a regression (prediction) analysis to find out which of these factors has the biggest influential power. Contrary to a popular myth, it is actually not the visuals, but the navigation that B2C companies have to take care of in the first place when constructing a website. Thus, among other factors, perceived consumer irritation can be largely predicted by how easy it is to travel around a website.


It is worth saying that while the information design turned out to be only the third strongest predictor of perceived irritation, a few things must be considered. Firstly, because the study was conducted in a laboratory setting, participants did not have to spend extra time on reading website information. Bassam Hasan considered this as a potential limitation of the study, thus the real predicting power of the information design is yet to be determined. Secondly, out of all possible factors that may influence perceived consumer irritation, the study has covered only three. Subsequently, visual, navigation and information design all together explain only around 46% of variability in perceived irritation. The rest depends on unknown (or yet to be discovered) factors.


But why is navigation so important to online consumers? Earlier it was mentioned that perceived irritation is referred to anything that goes against consumer expectations. Whether someone lands on a website with a particular product in mind or not, getting lost and confused is the last thing one wants. First of all, it is related to cognitive tasks. Complicated navigation demands intense cognitive input - attention, memory and thinking. While today it is only a matter of a few seconds before someone lands on a competitor’s website, making consumers spend extra time on thinking and memorizing a website’s layout is the last thing you want to do. Secondly, problems understanding a website layout may lead a consumer to developing a feeling of incompetency. While navigation difficulties may be related to poor design as opposed to consumer capabilities, it is advised to avoid evoking such feeling and make the navigation design as easy as possible.


Before jumping to conclusions, one important message must be stated very clearly. No amount of data on online atmospheric cues can fully explain consumer behavior. Despite the fact that terms like “perceived irritation” or “unpleasant shopping experience” in various studies are often referred to as psychological constructs, no universally accepted definitions exist. Moreover, it is a combination of different factors that may lead to the dislike of a website and thus termination of purchasing process. Although predictable to a certain extent, online shopping behavior is never fully explained through the “enters website – likes website - buys” schema. Similarly, perceived irritation should not be mistaken for a conscious decision or a feeling. Thus, the first step to understanding how to use online atmospheric cues is to realize that a website design is an important factor that influences online shopping behavior, yet it cannot be treated as the only one. Other factors could be demand, perceived quality and price ratio, word of mouth, individual differences, personality characteristics and even mood. Although most of these factors cannot be manipulated or predicted without carefully designed studies, they still play important roles in the buying process.





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