Online retailers are failing to focus on two key issues which are persistent barriers to Internet shoppers. A new study of online buyers has found that taken together these two issues are stopping more than half the people who use the Internet from buying anything online. We may well have seen a Christmas bonanza online in the past few days, but it is nothing compared with what might be possible if online retailers really got their act together.

Whatever we buy, we simply love touching it - and that could be preventing huge amounts of online sales

Whatever we buy, we simply love touching it – and that could be preventing huge amounts of online sales

The new research from the usability experts Foviance shows that people are put off buying items online because they want to touch and feel what they are buying. Furthermore, people are also avoiding online buying because they don’t like being charged for delivery.

We live in a three dimensional, physical world. Our experiences come from our interactions within those three dimensions. It means that we value physicality – it becomes important to us because it helps us understand things more easily. People find it much easier, for instance, to part with money on a credit card than they do with real, hard, cash. That’s because the intangibility of credit card money makes it difficult for us to be sure how much money we are spending – and we get it wrong as a result. With cash in our pocket it is much easier to budget because we can physically engage with what we have available. All those predictions of a cashless society are so, so wrong.

Similarly, we like to touch and feel products we are buying to work out their value. For instance, I could sell you something as simple as a book – something we all have experience of. But you value books more if the paper is of a certain quality, if the cover has a shiny feel or a three dimensional nature, or if it feels heavy. Online bookshops can tell you the dimensions and say things like “printed on quality paper”…but what does that really mean? To find out you need to feel it – and that’s why, still, most books are sold in physical stores (not online).

The success of Amazon or other online retailers is, of course, not to be sneezed at. Yet they are effectively only scratching the surface of what’s possible. So what can they do to help us be more likely to buy? Well, for a start, they can scrap delivery charges. Free delivery will make a significant difference – according to the Foviance study potentially increasing sales by around 18%. But they can also look at making their experience physical in some way.

Amazon may be about to do this – though they are denying rumours of starting High Street stores (even though Borders could be snapped up cheaply at the moment…!). However, many online retailers need to address the physicality issue in order to improve sales. Dell, for instance, has boutiques in shopping malls in the USA where you can try out all the different PCs and then order one online for home delivery. Zappos, the shoe store, provides a service that is effectively “try then buy“, allowing people to get shoes delivered free of charge and then returned without payment if they don’t fit or if you don’t like them. This allows people to get the physical experience of the shoes they are buying.

Scientists at the University of Buffalo have already been able to transmit the sense of touch across the Internet, which means there is the opportunity for online retailers to construct web sites, for instance, where we will be able to feel the clothes we want to buy. Other scientific work going on a the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for visually impaired people is also providing methods of getting a physical experience from the two-dimensional world of the Internet. Ultimately, we will be able to experience physically products we want to buy online.

In the meantime, anyone selling products online needs to be creative and communicate physicality more. Instead of saying things like “printed on quality paper” you might say “when you pick up this book the thickness of the paper makes it feel like virgin parchment”. Physical language could well help sell more online.

But if you sell products online you need to address the two key issues preventing you from selling more – physicality and delivery. Scrap those delivery charges and increase the physical experience in some way and there’s every chance your sales will shoot up.