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Ecommerce optimization series #6: closing the sensory gap in online shopping

If you’ve ever purchased a product online only to find out it's a miniature version of what you expected it to be, you’re not alone. 


Effectively communicating product dimensions is only the start of the sensory challenges presented by shopping online. How do you communicate the smell of a fragrance or the firmness of a mattress? 

If you’re looking to improve your conversion rates, this is a challenge you’ll want to tackle, and closing the gap is more important than ever. Here’s why. 

Why the sensory gap need your attention

You might think Covid caused a temporary increase in online purchasing. But research by McKinsey shows not only will the increase be maintained after Covid, but growth is likely across almost every category. 


The picture isn’t all rosy, however. As every ecommerce business knows, shipping and returns are a costly part of operations, and the bigger the sensory gap between what a customer expects from a product and the reality, the more likely they are to return items which can seriously hurt your profitability. 

Without physically examining a product, consumers face doubt and uncertainty, which can prevent a purchase decision altogether–53% of US adults are likely to abandon an online purchase if they can’t find a quick answer to their question. So there’s also a real threat of losing market share as consumers shift to ecommerce stores that do the best job of closing the sensory gap. 

The challenges

Communicating the whole sensory experience 

There are tons of research papers and best practice articles on which product imagery/video and copy convey physical experiences best. Some of this can help inform the solutions you develop to test hypotheses; you shouldn’t just work through the list as if it’s a ready-made testing backlog. 

Consider the five main senses and how you may be able to better communicate them online:

  • Sight or vision
  • Hearing or audition
  • Smell or olfaction
  • Taste or gustation
  • Touch or tactition

Here, the opportunity is to formulate specific hypotheses about your customers' sensory pain points. These pain points will differ by product category, new customers vs. returning buyers, price point, and brand. This is why user research and data analytics are imperative for an effective CRO program

Here are a few examples of how to use research to uncover sensory pain points; 

  • Analyze product reviews, customer service transcripts, and reasons for returned items. Such analysis can indicate the scale of specific pain points. 
  • Conduct moderated user testing. Ask testers to make a purchase decision on your website while they “talk aloud.” In this scenario, you might observe a user considering a dress, but they hesitate and explain they are worried the fabric would be clinging. You might hypothesize that showing how the dress moves while worn will provide the sensory information the user needs to make a purchase decision. 
  • Delve into analytics data and heatmaps to uncover where customers are having problems. Do you observe customers double-tapping on product images? This could indicate they are looking for greater product detail. 
  • Consider observational studies if you have physical stores. Observe what customers look at, how they inspect or try products, and what they ask salespeople. This method can help you understand what information you need to replicate online. 

Customers' reasons for seeking sensory information might change how you approach a solution. Think about how these statements might impact your hypothesis and subsequent variants to test. 

What’s the product's texture? 

“I live in a cold country where my skin dries out, so a foundation's creaminess is important.”

What’s the product size? 

“I want to have more family BBQs, but I hate cooking while everyone else tucks in because the grill isn’t big enough to cook enough food for four people at one time.” 

What’s the weight of the product? 

I’m buying a handheld hoover for my mother, but I’m worried the vacuum will be too heavy.” 

How loud is the product? 

“The hot summers are ruining my sleep. I need to buy a fan, but it needs to be quiet and not keep my light sleeping husband awake.”  

How’s the product packaged?

“I want to order a grocery shop, but I’m not sure I’ll be home when the delivery slot is due. I’m worried my food will defrost and spoil.” 

You might read the above and think, “we just need to list out the product specifications,” but these don’t provide enough context to answer the users' underlying questions. For example, knowing a handheld hoover weighs 5.6lb doesn’t help me understand if it’s too heavy for my mother to use. But knowing whether it is the lightest on the market, its weight compared to other hoovers she might have owned in the past, or reading from users who have the same use case as me, would help.

Below are some examples of how other businesses have attempted to answer sensory-related pain points. Many of these ideas offer an opportunity to differentiate and communicate your brand personality. So it’s not a case of copying the examples but providing inspiration.

Good American

Seeing a single example of a product worn by a model can be hard to picture what it will look like on you. Good American knows this and uses a variety of models to showcase their products. While browsing the site you can select a Size 0, 8 or 16 model and this will be remembered across list and product pages.


Madewell uses the True Fit questionnaire, asking what size feels best in well-known brands. Based on this information, they will recommend which size would fit you (and the type of fit) in the Madewell brand. This provides an easy reference point and puts into context Madewell’s sizing without the customer having to dig out a tape measure. 

The Whisky Exchange

Reading tasting notes written by the manufacturer could be doubted, but on the Whisky Exchange certain products have additional responses which can add authenticity to claims made.


While cutout product images on white backgrounds are suitable for certain situations, they don’t indicate the scale of the product or any real-world reference points customers can use to infer the suitability of the size. E.g. Will I have room for a beer and the sauces on the side of the BBQ? It’s hard to tell based on dimensions alone. Lowes includes some great product images showing the product “in use” to answer such questions. 


Will my new kicks suit me? Will they go with my outfits? Hoka used an AR Lens on Snapchat, allowing customers to "try on" sneakers for themselves.   


Lovehoney is an adult toy retailer; as such, discretion when purchasing items is important to many customers. Lovehoney devotes an entire page showing real examples of the packaging and labeling used when delivering products. 

Continuing with Lovehoney, here’s an excellent example of conveying sensory information by letting customers explain things in their own words. The language used in reviews brings to life the sensations experienced when using their products. There are also rating scales that accompany user reviews, with criteria relevant to the sensory elements of the product, e.g., sound and strength. 


Maison21g sells customized perfumes and does a great job of communicating different aspects of sent through design, video, and easy-to-understand copy with analogies customers will understand (no, “notes of bergamot”). I love that they provide a time estimation for how long the scent is likely to be noticeable, too. 

When digital attempts to close the sensory gap won’t cut it

Technology can help us overcome some of the more difficult sensory problems online shoppers face, but consumer adoption of such technologies is low. We can, for example;

  • Allow customers to feel products using haptics.
  • Use Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality, so customers can view products on themselves or experience them in virtual scenarios, e.g., virtual changing rooms. 
  • Technology is working towards helping customers virtually taste foods
  • Digital olfaction technology is being worked on so you can smell different aromas at home. 
  • 3D printers can replace having to ship some physical products. 

Even if there are advancements and greater uptake of such technologies, sometimes nothing beats trying out the actual product for yourself. In these cases, experimentation can help test out new business approaches to solve the problem.

You could test the idea of incorporating product return behavior into your business model. Doing so would allow you to better optimize and improve the experience knowing it’s part of your operating model. Warby Parker is an excellent example of this. While they have an AR app to help you visualize what the glasses will look like on your face, they know that customers will still want to try on multiple pairs of glasses before buying, so they orientated the business around delivering customers five pairs of glasses and returning the ones they don’t like.

Casper, the bedding company, also follows a similar premise to Warby Parker. Customers can try out a mattress for 100 days with a full refund and pick it up if they aren’t convinced. But mattresses aren’t something you can resell, so Casper builds a corporate social responsibility initiative into their operations - if you return your mattress, they will try to donate it. 

Other businesses have replaced physical products in favor of digital products, from music and books to buying digital rights for a poster and printing it at home. 

One final avenue is the subscription model to satiate the trial behavior consumers crave when trying new products. Scentbird, for example, offers fragrance subscriptions, while StitchFix offers clothing subscriptions. 

How does this all apply to your business? 

This article is the sixth installment in our nine-part ecommerce optimization series highlighting the most significant opportunities and challenges facing your business. 

If you'd like to learn more about conversion rate optimization and how we can help you build the necessary processes and methodologies, contact me at paul@speero.com

Look out for the 7th installment of the nine-part series next week.

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