While a picture might be worth a thousand words, five pictures may not necessarily be worth anything at all when it comes to online shopping.
Looking at multiple photos when making product comparisons can ultimately inhibit consumers from noticing what differentiates them in the first place, according to new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
The study's authors said that when online shoppers look at multiple images of two competing products, differences blur, and the items start to look alike. That's because seeing multiple pictures of the same products actually changes how consumers view things, altering their visual processing style.
"When we see one picture, we usually focus on the big-picture aspects like style and the overall look of the product," the researchers said. "For the many products that are distinguished by big-picture elements such as style or design or brand, a change in visual processing style to a component level moves our focus away from the aspects that distinguished those products in the first place."
As part of the study, researchers tried to re-create the online shopping experience. In one experiment, they showed a group of participants a single photo of two brands of shoes, while a second group was shown multiple different pictures of each product. The setup was similar to shopping online where you can either see a single main picture of each product, or click on the "additional views" option to see more pictures of each shoe, taken from different angles or in different colors.
The study's authors discovered that the members of the group who saw the most different views of the shoes found them to be less distinctive and less attractive than those in the group who saw only a few photos or saw the same photos repeated multiple times.
The researchers called this effect "product agnosia," a term based on the Greek word for "not knowing" or "without knowledge," because seeing the new information led people to forget differences they otherwise would have retained. They focused on a single detail, rather than the overall product.
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They said the participants who saw fewer pictures were more likely to recall which product they liked better because product agnosia did not occur.
Based on the results, researchers said online retailers that provide multiple photos of products should encourage shoppers to delay their purchases for a bit. They found that placing an item, like shoes, in a virtual shopping cart and returning to the website later makes a significant difference. [6 Steps to Building a Successful E-Commerce Site]
The study's authors found that test participants who delayed purchases tended to remember the differences between the products even though they had been exposed to multiple views of them because recalling a product from memory reverses product agnosia.
One of the study's authors, Baba Shiv, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, said this research shows that the intuition of showing more is better may not be true. He said the marketer's instinct to highlight differences by offering more visual impressions can backfire.
"When product agnosia occurs, looking at more can lead to seeing less if it changes how we look at things," Shiv said.
The study did reveal that not every type of product falls victim to product agnosia. This is particularly true for products in which consumers seek many specific details. For example, while smartphones don't appear very different from each other because they have relatively similar designs, shoppers are looking beyond the obvious and therefore examine images of smartphones through component processing. They pay attention to details such as button location, camera placement and whether the operating system appears to be Apple's iOS or Google's Android.
As a result, the researchers said it didn't matter how many views of the phones study participants saw because they were able to distinguish one phone from the other and choose which one they would like to buy. In this case, they said product agnosia simply disappeared.
"As intuition might suggest, seeing more photos can sometimes be good for product comparisons," the study's authors wrote. "But this is only true for products that are distinguished on sub-components or detail-oriented features like smart phones."
The research was co-authored by Stanford's Sanjay Rao and Jayson Shi Jia from the University of Hong Kong.
Originally published on Business News Daily