Skip to main content


Visitor conversion in traditional and online retail

dr-david-lewisGuest Blog: Dr David Lewis, best-selling author, award-winning broadcaster and Chairman of Mindlab International speaks about online retailing vs. traditional retailing.

For more than thirty years psychologist and neuroscientist Dr David Lewis has been studying the unconscious mental processes that underpin every aspect of our lives, from the political opinions we hold and the brands we buy to the friends we make and the emotions that drive us.

Known as the father of the billion dollar Neuromarketing industry, he was the first person in the world to use EEG or electroencephalography to read the electrical patterns in the brains of people watching TV commercials. This built on work by Krugman in the US who conducted the first experiment using electrodes to decipher the subconscious thoughts and feelings that occur below conscious awareness. He monitored his secretary as she watched part of a TV show and read a magazine.

During those early studies Dr Lewis monitored more than 30 commercials and used around 300 subjects over a six month period which included a two month follow up to test recall for the commercials they had seen. He has since gone on to pioneer commercial uses of the EEG techniques to get a better insight into exactly what drives consumers when they’re buying in store and online. His company, Mindlab International specialises in psychological market research and uses brain imaging and eye tracking, together with other technologies, to get inside the heads of consumers.

AWA optimisers got the chance to quiz Dr Lewis on his research at one of our regular quarterly meetings. Here are some of the fascinating insights he revealed about the differences between traditional and online retail.

Q. Could you summarise the differences between online and traditional retail?

One of the major differences may seem obvious, although perhaps the subtleties are not so apparent. When you’re shopping online, you have no ability to touch the product. What is termed our haptic sense plays no part in the purchasing decision. It’s the feelings you get when you’re actually holding, touching and feeling an item product that can mean the difference between a ‘must have’ purchase and no sale.

Touch is perhaps one of our most important senses. It’s the first thing we experience both in the womb and postnatally. In one study, randomly selected students had their hand briefly and lightly touched by librarians as they took out books from the University of Connecticut library. Although none were consciously aware of what had happened, those whose hand had been touched rated both the staff and the service they had received more highly than students who had not been touched.

So while touch is an extremely important element of product evaluation it is, of course, currently unavailable to us when shopping online. I say currently unavailable because research is being conducted into ways of simulating the haptic response using virtual reality. For example, the university team involved in this study has developed a virtual reality three-dimensional tennis ball. You can actually ‘feel’ the ball’s surface and even ‘turn’ it around in your hand. It’s a very curious experience. If this technology comes into general use, it’s going to be hugely important for retailers.

Aspects of our surroundings that, typically, pass can exert a profound influence over our behavior in a wide range of situations. Studies have shown, for example, that customers sitting in hard chairs adopt a tougher stance when negotiating the price of a new car. Strangers are judged to be more generous and caring by someone who has briefly held a cup of warm coffee rather than a cold drink. Job candidates are perceived as more serious minded by interviewers who have been given their resumes on a heavy rather than a light clipboard. Business executives become more competitive in the presence of an expensive leather briefcase. Perhaps most surprising of all, consumers are more attracted to the idea of buying cake if the slice is photographed with the fork handle pointing to the right rather than towards the left.

Why should that be? Because most people are right handed and therefore when the fork handle is pointing to their dominant hand, they have this feeling that they want to go and eat it. Whereas if it’s the other way around, they have to think about it.

I think that the more senses which you can invoke with a product, the more likely people are to respond to it at a fairly deep level, either positively or negatively.

Q. What senses are heightened online because some senses can’t be used online?

Very good question, indeed. I think, obviously, the visual senses are high. We have found this particularly with young people, the digital natives, young people who have grown up not knowing a non-digital world. They may not be as literate in the traditional sense as people of my generation, but they are visually very literate, indeed.

They are able to interpret visual imagery at much greater speed and often much greater accuracy than older respondents. It’s due to playing video games. It’s due to MTV; it’s due to having to process pop videos.

If you look at the average shot length, for example, of film from the ‘40s or ‘50s and then compare them to the average shot length of a film made today, you’ll see that scenes change much more rapidly.

In the ‘40s you might have average shot lengths of 30 to 40 seconds, a minute or even several minutes, without the camera angle changing. Now the cutting rate is extremely fast, and so you have to develop a high level of visual literacy in order to make sense of it all.

I also think that they are very much more sensitive to ambiguities within a text. I think the balance of the images has to be much more finely judged when you’re making things for the digital natives, even for digital immigrants, than perhaps they would have been in the past.

Speed of delivery is also very important. A lot of sites we’ve looked at are actually quite slow to load up. They’re perhaps overly complicated. Simplicity is key. I don’t know what your research has shown, but our research suggests – again, it depends on the demographic – but simple, easy-to-understand messages, both visual messages and also textual images are much more persuasive.

The amount of time and attention people are prepared to pay to any single message is very brief. The thing has to grab them in an instant. You can’t have this kind of narrative, or rather, the slow buildup to a narrative. They will just click it off.

Certainly, our research shows that anything which delays the actual purchase of the product, anything which gets in the way of the smooth flow from initial interest to desire to purchase to closing the deal can be very detrimental.

A retailer like Amazon has really smoothed out the whole process. You can buy things so easily, and when you can do something very easily, the law of least effort would suggest that you will buy when you can do it effortlessly rather than if you have to work at it.

That’s another thing. The site has to be really holding your hand all the way through and enabling you not to have any kind of cognitive interrupts. In a retail premises, if a customer says, “I’ll think about it,” you probably lost the sale. Again, online, if the customer has to think about it, the sale is certainly jeopardised.


If you want to achieve double-digit increases in your sales for your e-commerce website, A/B split testing is a powerful and profitable tool when used as part of a complete Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) programme. Download our guide to A/B Testing here:

Keep up-to-date

People from Facebook, FarFetch and RS Components receive our newsletter. You can too. Subscribe now.

Interested in turning experimentation and testing into an advantage for your entire business?