Human senses: the next battlefield for online retailers

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock


Digital progress won’t just allow truly immersive experiences but also help trigger multi-sensory responses

It’s hard to find things that won’t sell online," Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos once said. As the internet shrinks the world, it has expanded the size of markets. Covid has catapulted its growth. An eMarketer study says that despite a challenging year for retail in 2020, worldwide retail e-commerce sales grew 27.6% last year, up from a mid-pandemic assessment of 16.5%.

As consumers will likely continue this engagement, it makes sense for retail and consumer packaged goods companies to go online. But given the acute competition for customer mindshare, what will be the unique selling point of e-retailers? The answer: Target the customer’s base instincts.

Indeed, the next ‘war for customers’ could well lie in appealing to human instincts via congruent cues from our five basic senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. While appealing to such instincts may be the preserve of brick-and-mortar stores for now, online stores will look to provide multi-sensory experiences to customers and trigger an emotional response.

Sight: Most e-commerce players bank on visual appeal to influence consumers. But augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) can offer new forms of gratification, helping deliver an immersive and personalized experience for customers. A visit to Zeekit, a virtual fitting room firm, is an experience in itself. Here, real-time image processing maps a shopper’s image in different segments. A clothing item, for instance, is similarly processed and the equivalent points are mapped into a final simulation.

Walmart’s acquisition of Zeekit indicates that this trend will catch on. Going ahead, as customer engagement and decision-making get channelized through visual cues, e-retailers can invest in videos, such as a furniture Do-It-Yourself kit or a recipe kit for groceries, and enhance their visual appeal through high-quality 360-degree views.

Hearing: Enter a store, and engaging music can truly activate your limbic system tied to memory and emotion. Of course, it shouldn’t be noisy or a deterrent. Burberry’s acoustic service endeared itself to millennials by playing the latest music in-store. But how does one replicate this online? The use of sound in online stores is still unexplored.

Visa’s sensory branding system may offer a prototype. With three distinct elements—Visa’s logo animation, the brand sound and its haptic pattern—synthesized into a single process, it enhances the consumer’s payment experience. Visa sensory branding can be leveraged for iOS, Android, or web SDK, and integrated with payment systems. An internal Visa study claims that 81% of users have positive perceptions of merchants who use sound or animation cues.

Smell: The use of smell is more realistic in brick-and-mortar stores. Starbucks activated this by enabling an ‘aroma experience’. An experiment by Imagineering Institute in Nusajaya, Malaysia, successfully developed electrical signals that created 10 different virtual odours, including fruity, woody and minty.

More than smell, it’s about creating a whole new experience via AR/VR. Scentee, a Japanese mobile app, is a case in point. Users can attach a special device containing fragrant cartridges to their mobiles. When playing a war game, players experience gunpowder smell, or feel the aroma of spices while logged into a cooking site. In fact, one can even send emails with a specific scent notification.

Taste: This is a must-have while buying food products in a physical store. But how does an e-commerce player provide a sense of taste? Welcome the digital lollipop, developed by the National Institute of Singapore. Using electric current and slight changes in temperature, it synthesizes virtual tastes by stimulating the human tongue to sense a food product as salty, sour, bitter or sweet.

Similarly, Meiji University researchers have developed a ‘lickable screen’ device that re-creates taste sensations when in contact with a human tongue. One can imagine this development, and the deployment of similar digital lollipops for trying out new recipes or eatables, setting off taste buds to provide an entirely different kind of online consumer experience.

Touch: Researchers have developed a tactile sensor that can assess surface textures with high accuracy. The device comprises an array of piezoelectric receptors, which generate electrical responses proportional to applied stress and enable it to identify the surface characteristics of objects. It is used in robotics for delicate tasks, with a sensory apparatus that’s equivalent to human touch.

Ambiotherm, a wearable VR glass accessory, allows users to experience wind and sun virtually. The device has two parts: a double fan and a module for regulating temperature. Wind and thermal stimuli enhance the sensory experience with realism and offer a greater sense of presence compared with traditional VR. At its core, the idea is to create an experience instead of just letting an object be sensed.

A new step in intelligent industry: Companies are constantly focusing on how to digitize key industrial parts of their businesses using embedded software, data and new-generation wireless connectivity. As online retailers gain the ability to digitally engage all human senses, one can imagine the scope for business in times to come. The creation of a multi-sensory digital experience could be the ‘next big thing’ as we move to next-gen digital set-ups. It could also prove to be a critical step on our way towards the concept of an ‘intelligent industry’ of the future.

Vidhya Krishnaswamy is vice president and head of consumer products, retail and distribution, India Business Unit at Capgemini

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