Penn study finds too many images hurt purchase intent

Penn marketing professor Barbara Kahn and U. of Miami marketing professor Claudia Townsend found that consumers preferred images but only to a certain point

· December 9, 2013, 4:48 pm   ·  Updated December 9, 2013, 10:05 pm

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A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that while images of products appeal to online shoppers, customers are likely to decide against a purchase if they are overwhelmed by too many images.

In comparing visual depictions with verbal descriptions, Penn marketing professor Barbara Kahn and University of Miami marketing professor Claudia Townsend found that consumers preferred images. “There’s an overwhelming preference for visual depiction, even in a category like financial services … where you might think words would be better,” Kahn said. This held true for holiday shopping as well.

However, this conclusion has its limits. If there are too many images, shoppers might not buy anything.

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“Because you feel like you can see things really quickly, you scan over [images] too quickly and you can’t take in all the variety that’s there,” Kahn said. “They’re much less likely to choose if they can’t process the variety.”

The solution to this problem is adding a verbal description to an image. A verbal description, “slows people down … [because] you can’t scan it.” Kahn said. “To read … something, you have to do it slower than you can potentially do with a visual.”

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Using eye-tracking software in a laboratory setting, Kahn and Townsend compared how participants processed images versus words. In an assortment of images, eye movements tended to be more random. With words, however, participants’ eyes moved in a more systematic fashion. “It was kind of like you started to read the assortment,” Kahn said. This, in turn, allows shoppers to better take in information.

According to Townsend, this conclusion is a relevant one, “particularly with the increase in mobile commerce and purchase off of a screen.”

College sophomore Layan Al-Aidarous, who shopped online on Cyber Monday, agreed with the study. “When there’s a lot going on, you don’t know where to look,” she said. “If you have too many visuals, you’ll just get so distorted and don’t have the energy at that point.”

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