Multi-sensory experiences have been linked to brands over the past century as part of the consumer purchasing decision process. Here are points about touch manufacturers and package designers should consider in the post-COVID era.
Importance of Consumer Touch
Touch is a key factor when a consumer goes into a retail store and considers which products to purchase. Studies have shown consumers develop perceptions of a package's texture and weight based on touching a product. But during the COVID-19 period many stores have either been closed or encourage customers to limit touch. Furthermore, recent studies have shown consumers have a negative view of products that have been touched by other shoppers.
In a clothing store it's common for consumers to choose a shirt at the bottom of a stack because it was least likely touched by other shoppers. The concept of tactile contamination - in which people avoid buying items touched by others - was observed long before the pandemic, as it was described by Argo, Dahl & Morales in 2006. The researchers cited consumers who transferred negative properties from a contaminated source to a person who touched it or came in proximity of it.
Consumers do not need to witness a contamination event to project negative properties on a person, the researchers found. They can make such determinations based on other senses such as smell. A few years earlier a Rachman study found consumers associated contamination with negative feelings that included disgust and dirtiness. With that in mind, imagine how these negative feelings escalated during the pandemic.
Synergy of the Senses
Psychologist Charles Spence at University of Oxford is a leading researcher in the field of multi-sensory perception and how it relates to packaging. He views tactile contamination at "a whole different level these days."
Spence has conducted some of the most in-depth work on multi-sensory studies, particularly relating to food products. One of his works published in the Journal of Sensory Studies in 2004 proved taste was affected by sound, as demonstrated by the noise of Pringles chips. He has also studied workstation human interactions on the European Space Shuttle and how indoor work environments affect mood and behavior.
The idea that other senses besides taste can affect perception of food doesn't seem to be a widely-discussed topic among consumers. Perhaps they have an awareness of multi-sensory perception as "second nature" or on a subconscious level. It's certainly not a topic that comes up much in the business community when analyzing retail displays. Food, of course, typically isn't touched before it's purchased, but consumers still like to touch packages for confirmation of their expectations.
When Consumers Will Be Ready To Touch Again
Even with massive vaccine distribution in 2021, it's still too early to scientifically evaluate when consumer touch will be the norm again in the retail space. Businesses have reopened, but it's not clear when the pandemic and its social effects will be completely over. In the meantime, it will be difficult to monitor consumer trends based on touch. Some businesses, such as hotels, are moving toward touchless technology.
The touch experience remains an important part of multi-sensory studies for package designers to absorb. For the companies that have moved toward virtual reality (VR) experiences, touch has a more measurable dynamic. Consumers can wear VR goggles and immerse themselves in a 360 degree virtual environment that simulates the real world. At the moment VR booths are fairly rare in today's society, but may be part of the digital transformation of shops around the world.
 "Haptic Aspects of Multisensory Packaging Design (2019)" , by Charles Spence, Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental Psychology University of Oxford
 Read more articles on "Multisensory Packaging Design (2017 - today)" , by Charles Spence
 "From Disgust to Desire: How Products Elicit Our Emotions (2004)" , by Pieter M. A. Desmet, in Design and Emotions, edited by Dena McDonagh et al.
 "Luxury branding: the industry, trends and future conceptualisations (2015)" , by Yuri Seo and Margo Buchanan-Oliver
 "Food packaging: The medium is the message (2010)" , by Corinna Hawkes
 "Multisensory design: Reaching out to touch the consumer (2011)", by Charles Spence and Alberto Gallace