ISSN : (Online)
DOI : https://doi.org/10.14377/JAPR.2013.9.30.5
Shopping with Friends : The Social Experience of Virtual Shopping
Today, online shopping is becoming more social experience. Various social media applications enable consumers to share product information with a variety of other consumers including their friends, family, and unacquainted peer consumers. Among many social media, 3D multi-user virtual environments provide a unique online space for socialization. Living in a replica of our real world, individuals in these virtual worlds do all the sorts of things that we do. They take courses, hold teleconferences, attend music concerts, and, of course, go shopping.
An advancement in online shopping, shopping in multi-user, virtual environments provide an analogue of shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. Shoppers can experience products and services in a realistic manner while enjoying real-time face-to-face conversations via avatars (Lee & Chung, 2008). Unlike computer-human interaction in conventional online shopping, virtual shopping helps fulfill shoppers’ desire for social interaction (Papadopoulou, 2007). Along this line, virtual environments can significantly add social character to traditional online shopping by enabling a coshopping experience (i.e., shopping with others). This in turn enhances the hedonic value of shopping (Holzwarth, Janiszewski, & Neumann, 2006). Nevertheless, little empirical work has addressed the unique social dimension of shopping in virtual environments. The purpose of this study is, therefore, to experimentally investigate the effects of collaborative shopping with friends on key dimensions of shopping experience in a three-dimensional, multi-user, virtual environment. More specifically, this research developed virtual store where real virtual environments users can shop clothes for their avatar with their friend in virtual world and examine the impact of purchase pal on virtual shoppers’ shopping enjoyment, attitude toward the store, and purchase intention. That is, this study tests whether the experience of collaborative shopping can enhance individuals to have more enjoyable experience, more positive store toward the retailer, and more stronger purchase intent in the socially rich online shopping environment.
Virtual Environments for Online Shopping
CVEs (Collaborative Virtual Environments) or MUVEs (Multi-User Virtual Environments) are computer-mediated communication systems that actively support multiple users to interact and collaborate with each other in real-time within the shared virtual worlds (Benford et al., 2001). Virtual environments, where numerous people can interact simultaneously within the same simulated cyber space, are emerging as a frontier in social computing experience with critical implications for business, education, sciences, and our society at large (Messinger et al., 2009). In addition to the popularity of virtual world platforms such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, a number of virtual environments such as Habbo, Webkinz, Neopets, Gaia Online, There, and Club Penguins are emerging targeting various populations.
The application of virtual environments on web-based online shopping environments has received growing research attention. Past literature has suggested that virtual reality technology offers promising potential for e-commerce applications, since it simulates physical goods in a realistic manner (Walsh & Pawlowski, 2002). Virtual product simulation allows consumers to experience products in realistic way (Jiang & Benbasat, 2004; Ryan, 2001). This realistic virtual reality experience is known to improve consumer product knowledge, brand attitude and purchase intention (Daugherty & Biocca, 2002; Klein, 2003).
In addition to the realistic shopping experience, virtual environments appear to be a promising e-commerce venue because they offer a rich social dimension to the typical one-way shopping experience through avatar-based real-time interpersonal communication. An avatar is defined as “a general graphic representation that is personified by means of computer technology” (Holzwarth & Janiszewski, 2006, p. 20). Avatars have the potential to enrich interpersonal communications and bonds by allowing online shoppers to engage in more dynamic, intimate, and meaningful conversations (Vasalou, Joinson, & Pitt, 2007). In this regard, avatars can fulfill a consumers’ desire for interpersonal communications and social experience in their online shopping experience. In the form of avatars, consumers can undertake a variety of shopping activities (e.g., browsing, window-shopping) in a vivid manner. Social encounters and interactions during shopping are visually manifested in a similar way as they do in real life (e.g., seeing and meeting other shoppers and shopping with friends) that are not available in traditional web-based shopping (Papadopoulou, 2007).
Social Interaction in Virtual Environments
Previous research findings suggested that the most significant inhibitor of web-based online shopping is the absence of pleasurable experiences, social interaction, and personal consultation by a sales representative (Barlow, Siddiqui, & Mannion, 2004). Unlike conventional web-based shopping, shopping in virtual environments provides an unprecedented opportunity for individuals to observe the presence of others, including salespeople, unacquainted and acquainted peer shoppers, in a realistic visual format, and to communicate with them in real time through instant messaging (IM) or Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP). While such social interactions take place via 3D anthropomorphic avatars, shopping experiences in virtual worlds are similar to those in the real world. Consequently, consumers are able to have rich social interactions in a virtual store as if they were shopping in a brick-and-mortar store.
To this end, previous studies examined the impact of socially enhanced shopping experience by adopting salesperson avatar in virtual store setting. Consumer interaction with a virtual salesperson avatar enhances shoppers’ enjoyment, brand attitudes, purchase intention (Moon et al., 2013) and consumer trust (Bauer et al., 2006). When consumers interact with virtual salesperson, it is reported that sincere and competent avatars generated more positive consumer responses including trust, attitude towards the brand, satisfaction with the retailer, and shopping intentions than exciting salesperson avatars (Jin & Sung, 2010).
Social Shopping with Purchase Pal
In addition to the interaction with salesperson avatar, a notable social interaction while shopping in virtual environments is the “shopping with friend” experience. A friend that provides aid to a shopper’s decision making process is identified in the literature as a “purchase pal” (Bell, 1967; Furse, Punj, & Stewart, 1984; Hartman & Kiecker, 1991; Midgley, 1983). Purchase pals are formally defined as “individuals who accompany buyers on their shopping trips in order to assist them with their on-site purchase decisions” (Hartman & Kiecker, 1991, p.462). The role of purchase pals varies. Purchase pals structure decision problems, provide information, evaluate products and alternatives, negotiate prices, and help make final decisions with the buyers. Real world examples of purchase pal use includes inexperienced automobile purchasers relying on their fathers in their evaluation of products (Furse, Punj, & Stewart, 1984), husbands obtaining assistance from their wives in their suit purchasing decisions (Midgley, 1983), and shoppers turning to friends or relatives who assist them in negotiating prices (Bell, 1967).
Previous research shows that shoppers have more favorable attitudes toward a store when they perceive greater social cues from interaction with purchase pals and/or other unacquainted shoppers (Hu & Jasper, 2006). In addition, those shoppers who are with their purchase pals tend to stay longer and purchase more in the store than when shopping alone (Sommer, Wynes, & Brinkley, 1992). Thus, the following hypothesis is developed:
H1. Shopping with a friend will have a positive effect on (a) attitude toward the virtual store and (b) purchase intention.
Shopping with purchase pals is an enjoyable social activity. Both adults and teen shoppers reported that having “fun” was an important motivation for shopping with others (Hartman & Kiecker, 1991). Previous findings also indicate that the enjoyment of shopping with friends favorably influences the shopper’s behavior. Consumers tend to spend more money when shopping with their friends, than when shopping alone (Granbois, 1968; Mangleburg, Doney, & Bristol, 2004; Sommer, Wynes, & Brinkley, 1992; Woodside & Sims, 1976).
Similar to the findings in brick-and-mortar shopping contexts, shopping with friends in virtual stores may provide a socially gratifying and enjoyable experience to virtual shoppers. In this light, shopping with a friend in virtual environments will enhance the hedonic value of shopping, shopping enjoyment.
H2. Shopping with a friend will have a positive effect on shopping enjoyment.
Previous studies have suggested a mediating role of shopping enjoyment in determining attitudes and behavioral intentions in online contexts (e.g., Hassanein & Head, 2007). The pleasure of shopping with a friend favorably influences the attitude toward the store and purchase intention (Donovan & Rossiter, 1982). Thus, we predict that the perceived shopping enjoyment will mediate the impact of co-shopping on the shopper’s attitude toward the virtual store and purchase intention.
H3. Shopping enjoyment will mediate the positive influence of shopping with a friend on store attitude and purchase intention.
The study employed a 2 (shopping with a purchase pal vs. shopping alone) × 2 (male vs. female) between-subject experimental design. Prior research suggested a significant role of gender in shopping behavior (Yang & Wu, 2007). Thus, gender was included as an independent variable to control the potential gender effects. In the purchase-pal condition, participants (27 males and 22 females) were asked to bring a virtual friend of their choice and to shop together at the store. In the shopping-alone condition, (20 males and 22 females) shopped alone. The experiment received Institutional Review Board approval from a large Southern university.
Stimulus and Recruitment
As the experimental setting, this study used Second Life for two reasons. First, it is easy to recruit the participants since Second Life is the most popular virtual environments platform in U.S. market. Second, Second Life enables researcher to block the store from the random users. Since only invited users can come to the store, the study could have appropriate laboratory experiment setting even though the experiment is conducted online. A virtual retail store with fictitious clothing brand, MOON, was created therein. MOON is a fictitious unisex casual apparel brand. Clothing such as jeans, shirts, dresses and suits are selected for main shopping items since purchasing fashion products for avatars are the most common and popular activity in Second Life.
A total of 91 Second Life users (47 males and 44 females from 18 to 69 years old) from 14 different countries participated in the study. As compensation for their participation, all participants were given 500 LD (virtual money which is equivalent to 3 USD).
Upon arrival, the researcher avatar greeted the participants’ avatars and escorted them into the store. After reading the instructions, the participants were asked to shop around the virtual store, with or without a friend, for five minutes and were then asked to answer a series of questions. The entire procedure took about 25 minutes.
Attitude toward the store was gauged on a seven-point, bipolar scale with three pairs of anchor points: unfavorable/favorable, bad/good, and dislike/like (α = .89). Purchase intention was measured on a seven-point, three-item scale anchored by unlikely/likely, improbable/probable, and impossible/possible (α= .94). Finally, shopping enjoyment was assessed on a seven-point, four-item, semantic differential scale with the endpoints of unenjoyable/enjoyable, unpleasant/pleasant, not entertaining/entertaining, and uninteresting/interesting (α= .90) (Ducoffe, 1996).
A series of 2 × 2 ANOVAs were performed to test our proposed hypotheses. The means of shopping enjoyment, attitude toward the virtual store, and purchase intention appear in Table 1. Unless otherwise specified, the degree of freedom is (1, 87). As predicted, subjects who shopped with a friend had a more favorable store attitude (Matt = 6.07), greater purchase intention (Mpi = 5.99), and more shopping enjoyment (Mse = 5.80) than those who shopped alone (Matt = 5.41, F = 8.99, p < .01; Mpi = 5.39, F = 4.39, p < .05; Mse = 4.95, F = 15.45, p < .001); this supports H1a, H1b, and H2. Neither gender nor purchase pal × gender was significant (Fs < 1). In sum, our findings suggest that shopping with a purchase pal positively impacts shopping enjoyment, attitude toward the virtual store, and purchase intention.
Table 1. Means and Standard Deviations for Dependent Variables
H3 predicted that the increase in the perceived shopping enjoyment would mediate the impact of the interaction with purchase pal on attitude toward the store and purchase intention. As suggested by Baron and Kenny (1986) evidence for complete mediation requires, 1) an effect by the purchase pal on the attitude toward the store and purchase intention, 2) an effect by the purchase pal on the perceived shopping enjoyment, and 3) a nonsignificant effect by the purchase pal when the perceived shopping enjoyment and purchase pal are regressed on the attitude toward the store and purchase intention. As presented in Table 2, shopping with a purchase pal significantly influenced attitude toward the store (t(89) = 2.74, p < .01) and purchase intention (t(89) = 2.17, p < .05). In addition, shopping with a purchase pal significantly enhanced the level of shopping enjoyment (t(89) = 3.94, p < .01). Finally, with the inclusion of shopping enjoyment and purchase pal in the regression model, the effect of the shopping with a purchase pal became non-significant for both attitude toward the store (t(88) = .40, p = .69) and purchase intention (t(88) = .21, p = .83). These tests provide support for the mediating role of the perceived shopping enjoyment, thereby supporting H3.
Table 2. Mediation Analysis for Effects of Purchase Pal
Shopping is a social activity which needs significant amount of social interaction (Puglia, Carter, & Jain, 2000). This study, one of the first to explore the collaborative shopping experience in multi-user virtual environments, advances our understanding of the social dynamics in e-commerce settings. The current study investigated the influence of consumer interaction with their virtual friends on perceived shopping enjoyment, attitude toward the store, and purchase intention. The findings suggested that shopping with a purchase pal positively impacts on perceived shopping 17 Shopping with Friends : The Social Experience of Virtual Shopping enjoyment, attitude toward the store, and purchase intention. The current study addressed the importance of what has been widely recognized as a significant predictor of enhancing service production and delivery in offline retailing environments—consumer-to-consumer interaction in virtual shopping (McGrath & Otnes, 1995; Parker & Ward, 2000). Consumers prefer to shop with friends in a social and collaborative environment, rather than in isolation (O’Hara & Perry, 2001). Consistent with the findings of prior research in retailing, our findings proposes the important in the context of virtual shopping is the role of purchase pals.
Further, the finding of current study showed the interrelated relationship among the consumer responses. The results of this study also demonstrate that perceived shopping enjoyment mediate the shopping with friends experience on attitude toward the store and purchase intention. Researchers have drawn attention on enjoyment as a significant benefit of shopping since shopping is not just a matter of obtaining tangible products but also about experience, enjoyment and entertainment (Martineau, 1958; Sit, Merrilees, & Birch, 2003; Tauber, 1972). In terms of enhancing the effectiveness of virtual shopping, the findings of this study points to the importance of the hedonic value of the collaborative shopping experience.
Our findings underscore the importance in e-tailing environments of developing and utilizing collaborating shopping experiences. The findings support a recent e-tailing trend that online shopping is heading from solo experience to social interaction (Zmuda, 2009). For example, several social shopping applications such as Wanelo.com, Fancy.com, and Fab.com are available for supporting social shopping. Facebook Connect enables users to take actions like commenting, reviewing, making purchases, and rating even though they shop outside of Facebook. A back pack retailer JanSport adopted Facebook Connect in their online shopping website, which let their shoppers publish questions about products, create wish lists, suggest alternatives, and comment on products to friend within their Facebook network without leaving the JanSport site (Grau, 2009). Also Charlotte Russe, a retailer of apparel for teenage girls and young women adopted ShopTogether applications where consumers can shop with a friend while they can view, compare, and chat about the product together in real time (Grau, 2009). Similarly, the shoe brand Vans allows consumers to chat with friends in real time while building custom shoes on its website (vans.com).
Moreover, an increasing number of e-commerce sites, so-called “social shopping sites” (e.g., Kaboodle, FriendShopper, ThisNext, ShopStyle, Wishpot and StyleHive) provide a venue for consumers to exchange shopping and product information via discussion boards and chatting while shopping therein. One of the largest Korean online shopping websites, 11th St (www.11st.co.kr), incorporates a distinctive feature called “chapping,” where online shoppers can have real-time interactions via IM (instant messaging) while shopping. “Chapping” enables consumers and their peers to view each other’s shopping items simultaneously and to provide real-time feedback to each other through on-site chatting.
Shopping with friends and interactions with them, at the point of purchase can influence consumers’ actual purchase decisions. Online shoppers’ shopping experience and their purchase decisions could be influenced by the purchase pal accompanying them. As discussed previously, virtual environments enables users to engage in social functions and manifests these social interactions in vivid 3D graphical images. In this virtual environment, consumers can enjoy the “shopping with friend” experience in a similar way as they enjoy a co-shopping experience in real life.
In conclusion, in terms of enhancing the effectiveness of virtual shopping, the current research points to the importance of the hedonic value of the co-shopping experience. In light of the findings of this study, the strategic focus of e-tailing practitioners should be creating a socially engaging shopping environment by adopting multi-user virtual environment technology.
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