FYI: Our Neurological Response To Online Retail Frustrations

A new study conducted by Goldsmiths University (in partnership with Loqate), – captured brain activity responses to online shopping frustrations, via EEG scans.

The findings suggest(s) that certain online shopping frustrations could impact the brain in similar ways to other stressors, such as theft, for instance.

The new research (as carried out by scientists at Goldsmiths University, this year in 2021) found that surprisingly, frustrating retail issues can cause more stress in the brain than being stuck in traffic. This first-of-its-kind study showed how the brain responds to common online retail frustrations, and it benchmarks the importance of developing a seamless customer experience.

In particular, the study found that poor online retail experiences (such as your parcels being returned to depot for the simple errors in address verification) produced strong avoidance signals in the brain, – indicating that retail frustrations can produce a revulsion response. This revulsion signal is a deeply unpleasant experience, and it likely deters participants from placing themselves in similar scenarios again.

In August 2021, psychologists at Goldsmiths University assessed seven healthy volunteers (28 ± 3.11 years), each presented with 36 frustrating scenarios detailed by ‘background,’ ‘set-up,’ and ‘obstacle.’

The psychologists measured the neurological and physiological responses of five participants, with a high-density electroencephalogram (EEG) technique, and all seven with an electrocardiogram (ECG). Self-reported behavioural data half-detailing online retail experiences, and half everyday occurrences was collected, and ranked in order of severity. 

It was observed that three retail scenarios fell into the top quartile of results. These scenarios triggered similar neurological responses to some of the most frustrating non-retail scenarios, including bike theft, arriving late, or losing out on an appointment because of unexpected traffic. The most frustrating scenarios were:

  1. Having a wedding outfit delivered the day after the big day (despite paying extra to receive it on time),
  2. Spending an hour queuing online for a hot ticket to an event, only to have the website crash when you reach the front of the queue,
  3. And having a hotly-anticipated delivery returned to the depot, due to the address not being found. 

The EEG imaging revealed that these unpleasant online retail experiences produced strong frontal alpha asymmetry in the brain, – indicative of repulsion.

Similarly, online retail scenarios produced changes in heart rate variability (hallmarks of the ‘fight or flight’ response), thereby strengthening the evidence which suggests that these situations are highly aversive, and often consciously avoided in the future. The data also shows that online shopping is not only comparably frustrating to other scenarios in the reaction it provokes, but it’s having a real and lasting impact on our brains.

In other words, a bad retail experience might remain with customers in the long-term (other key results from the study suggested that people were bombarded with memories of their past online e-commerce let-downs).

“These high frequency gamma signals coming from the fronto-temporal brain regions during retail scenarios suggest a higher memory engagement, and a higher level of integration of memory, attention and emotional arousal – all of which are critically-engaged for a frustrating experience, because of its personal relevance. The study shows that our brains respond to retail experiences, especially the frustrating ones,” said Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya (Goldsmiths).

Dr Jack Lewis (a consulting neuroscientist on the study) said: “Data shows that not only do consumers’ vividly recall their own highly-frustrating online retail experiences, but that as these memories flood back, they are accompanied by changes in the brain and heart data that indicates an urge to ‘flee,’ suggesting that online retail frustrations are powerfully repellent. It seems likely that consumers would go to great lengths to avoid repeating such experiences in the future.”

These findings present cause for concern for retailers, many of whom are already struggling to meet consumer appetites and the expectations of online experiences, following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of consumers reporting problems with non-food retailers rose to 12.6% in July 2021. This is the highest since records began, and it coincides with a sharp rise in online shopping, AND policy-imposed reductions in face-to-face retail.

The research was done in partnership with eCommerce experts, Loqate. Loqate’s ‘Future of the Checkout’ study (2021) was carried out amongst over 4,500 global consumers, and 150 eCommerce decision-makers.

Loqate found that on average, consumers abandon a bad checkout 6 times a week! These abandonments can reach approximately £44 of missed revenue. According to the study, the business consequences of poor consumer experiences can be severe: two in five Britons (42 percent) will never return to a retailer after a bad online checkout experience.

Matthew Furneaux (a Director of Location Intelligence at Loqate) added: “Across our quantitative and psychological research, the same finding comes across loud and clear. A frustrating online retail experience is likely to jeopardise repeat custom. And with the retail landscape as competitive as it is, retailers simply cannot afford to do this.”

“The shift towards online retail initiated by the pandemic is a permanent one. Retailers need to give real consideration to their entire digital experience – from payment technology. through to address verification, because this will only become more intrinsic to their relationship with customers, and indicative their of business success,” added Matthew.

More information can be found here.