June 6, 2008, 12:00 AM

Importance of online research in web purchases varies by item, study says

A new study finds that the influence of online research in web purchases varies by product.

New research finds that the influence of online research in web purchases varies by product.

While the Internet can help consumers sort through product choices, it doesn’t always influence buying decisions as much as other sources of information, according to “The Internet and Consumer Choice: Online Americans Use Different Search and Purchase Strategies for Different Goods,” a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

For music buyers, the Internet helps them connect with artists and learn more about music but doesn’t strongly influence what or how they buy, Pew says. Among music buyers, 83% find out about music from radio, television or a movie and 64% find out from family, friends or co-workers, Pew says. 56% say they use the Internet in product research.

For cell phone purchasers, 59% ask an expert or salesperson for advice and 46% go to one or more cell phone stores. 39% say they use the Internet for product research. For consumers seeking new homes, 49% look at newspaper ads, 49% do online research and 47% ask a real estate agent for advice.

The Internet’s influence on a product is greater when the product requires a large commitment, such as the contractual commitment of a cell phone or the financial commitment of a home purchase or rental, according to Pew. 10% of cell phone buyers and 11% of home buyers or renters say online information had a major impact on their purchasing decision.

In comparison, for a product such as music-which involves less commitment but more difficulty in determining quality before purchase-online information competes with other sources as buyers search widely prior to buying, the study says. Only 7% of music buyers say the Internet had a major impact on their choice.

Online research also doesn’t necessarily translate into an online purchase. When it comes time to make a purchase, music and cell phone purchases are most often made offline, with only 22% of music buyers and 12% of cell phone purchasers making online purchases, according to the study.

Many consumers who use the Internet for research say online information helps them get better deals, online and offline. 42% of music lovers, 41% of cell phone buyers and 29% of real estate buyers say web research helped get them a better price, Pew says.

However, a better deal for consumers doesn’t always mean less money for sellers. Those who use the Internet to research music and cell phones often buy more products or upgrade to more expensive models with more features. 37% of buyers say they buy more music than they otherwise might have, while 43% of cell phone buyers say online information led them to purchase a phone with more features.

Pew also found that most purchasers don’t participate in online ratings or reviews. Only 5% of music buyers, 3% of cell phone purchasers and 4% of real estate buyers posted a rating or comments online following a purchase.

The report is based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Aug. 3 to Sept. 5, 2007, among a sample of 2,400 adults 18 years or older.

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