Shopping for Consumer Trust

I surveyed my father and two fellow UF journalism graduate students about their thoughts and experiences with online shopping. The questions I asked were:

1) What was the last thing you purchased online? (Perhaps a presumptuous question since it assumed that everyone had actually done some online shopping in the past, but since we were limited in questions and nothing was stopping them from replying, “I haven’t bought anything online,” I decided to use it.)

2) Why did you purchase this online rather than in a store? (I had a substitute question prepared in case they answered negatively to question one, but I never had to use it.)

3) What sorts of items do you prefer to buy in a brick-and-mortar store over an online store?

4) Why? (As you can guess, all these questions were my not-so-subtle attempts to pinpoint, without directly asking, my participants confidence in online shopping. I felt like identifying what sorts of things people are willing to buy online versus what they will only buy in stores could give data for some solid inferences. And with only six questions, solid inferences are about as good as it’s going to get.)

5) What, if anything, needs to improve in today’s online shopping world? (After skirting around the issue for most of the survey, I figured I would ask one question that struck at its heart. This question gave me my most interesting responses in that, somewhat surprisingly, everyone had different concerns.)

6) On average, how much time do you spend online a day? (I wanted to get an idea of how comfortable and experienced each user was with the Internet, so I figured this would be the best way to do it while only using a single question. I asked for a daily average since I figured it would be easier to compute offhand rather than a weekly total.)

I struggled a bit with coming up with only six questions to cover the topic, but I did get some interesting feedback. Onto the results:

1) Two participants purchased books, and one purchased a vinyl album for a gift.

2) Two participants purchased their items because they could not be found locally. One participant purchased their item to avoid store crowds and because it was cheaper online.

3) Everyone mentioned clothes as an item they preferred to purchase in stores. One participant mentioned shoes, and another mentioned electronics.

4) All participants stated they like to go to brick-and-mortar stores so that they could examine items beforehand. One participant stated that, in some cases, they will go to a store to “check something out,” and then purchase it online if they like it. An example provided was makeup. Variations in the sizes of clothes, as well as research for purchasing expensive, “big ticket” items, were other reasons given for going to stores.

5) One person addressed the issue of online security and the difficulty in determining vendor legitimacy as needing improvement.

Another stated that price discrepancy between in-store and online merchandise can be an affront to customer loyalty. They provided an example of purchasing a computer monitor from Walmart. They went to Walmart’s online site, discovered that a nearby store had the monitor in stock, and went over to the brick-and-mortar store to purchase it. However, upon arriving, they discovered the monitor was listed for 20 dollars more than what it was online. The participant stated “this can cause confusion and customer resentment.”

The practice of using special promotions to bring new users to the site, only to “not offer those same promotions to returning users” was also brought up. Also, there was concern that shipping prices seemed “arbitrary” for certain promotions or products that are only available online.

6) The participants stated they spend approximately 3, 4, and 5 hours online a day, respectively.

Discussion:

My participants all exhibited signs of being quite comfortable with the mechanics of online shopping. They had all made recent purchases online, and they seemed quite comfortable with the Internet, given its frequent use in their daily lives.

Despite this comfort level, however, I did not feel I found much evidence to support Mutz’s claim that “when e-commerce works as it should, buying online helps foster trust in those one does not know and has no reason to trust” (p. 454). Despite being comfortable enough with online shopping enough to engage in it, all of my participants described being cautious and on-guard while doing it. Mentions of security issues, as well as noticing price discrepancies in both item and shipping costs, displays a high level of wariness that does not lend itself to social trust. Mutz said that “e-businesses are viewed as less trustworthy than brick and mortar ones, and as less accountable as well” (p.441). In the case of my survey participants, it seems the customer has no problem holding the online retailer accountable for their practices.

My participants also indicated a preference for “low-risk” items for online purchasing, such as books. It was expensive items, such as electronics, that my participants preferred going to stores for in order to be able to interact with. Clothes were also brought up, which I found both interesting and understandable. A shirt can have a label that displays size “medium,” but that doesn’t mean it’s similar to other medium-sized shirts a person owns. In that regard, online shopping seemingly faces a difficult task in shoring up enough social trust to ensure customers feel comfortable enough accepting labels for their face value.

Muntz said that “when initial low expectations nonetheless result in positive purchase experiences, social trust is likely to increase” (p. 444). I did not come away from my survey with data that supports this idea. My participants had experience with purchasing things online. Their reasons for doing so seemed either to come from an economic standpoint (cheaper prices) or an availability standpoint. Despite obviously having some successful online purchasing experiences, all of my participants had no difficulty coming up with problems or relating negative online shopping experiences to me. When I read Muntz’s article, I remembered thinking to myself about how fickle human nature can be. We can have 1,000 positive online shopping experiences, but as soon as we have that one bad experience… THAT’S going to be the one we remember. And I suppose that’s where I have my biggest problem with Muntz’s theory. Trust is really hard to build, and it’s really easy to lose. I feel like my survey results, as extremely limited as they are, ended up illustrating this point.

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4 Responses to Shopping for Consumer Trust

  1. I found it interesting that none of your respondents mentioned convenience in any way — but many of the other students found that convenience was a top reason people gave for shopping and buying online. This just goes to show how we can miss significant things if our sample is too small or not diverse enough.

    • aflaten says:

      There goes my plan to base my thesis survey results off the first three people I run into at the Reitz.

      But yeah, my sample certainly did seem distinct in that regard. They gave an overall more world-weary, cynical view of online shopping as more of a “well, yeah, I have to do it to find X” sort of thing. And yet, despite the complaints, everyone still did it! So, even if they were more of an outlier set in terms of online shopping motivations, in regards to the effects of social trust on their shopping habits overall, things weren’t all that different.

  2. “There goes my plan to base my thesis survey results off the first three people I run into at the Reitz.”

    Ha ha!

    World-weary and cynical, hm? You need some more cheerful friends.

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