Too many product images may be bad for e-retailers

Online shoppers are less likely to purchase when a web site displays many products, a study shows.

Madeline C. Andre

Retailers that want to increase the number of purchases online shoppers make will want to consider listing fewer products that include images but no text, a new survey suggests. 

According to the research conducted by the University Of Miami School Of Business Administration, shoppers are less likely to make purchases online when they are given large sets of products to choose from (more than 14 options) that are presented with images only.  When presented with a smaller selection of products (four or eight options,) it makes no difference whether products are displayed with images or text.

The study found that consumers prefer seeing images to reading text, but when they encounter too many images, they spend less time examining each product and are less likely to make any purchases.  They also pay less attention to each item if they only see an image compared with when products are displayed with text. 

Since consumers do respond to visuals, e-retailers should use them on their home pages, and promote the ease of purchasing products and variety of items for sale, says Claudia Townsend, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration and lead author of the study.  Retailers “should then make the product offering pages more text-based in order to cause the shopper to slow down, review each option more carefully, and buy.”

The study’s findings apply to mobile commerce sites and apps, too.

“There is a tendency for mobile app designers to use graphics almost exclusively,” says Townsend.  “This study shows that although images are attractive and fun, when a large product set is shown with images only, there is a tendency among consumers to gloss over them rather than make a purchase,” she says.

The researchers, which included Townsend and Barbara Kahn of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, conducted five studies of 40 to 290 consumers between spring 2011 and winter 2013. 

In those studies, participants were asked to make decisions about products in multiple situations.  The participants were asked to rate the variety and complexity of product “choice sets,” which are products displayed similarly to what a consumer might encounter online.  They were also asked to make mock purchasing choices from the products they were shown and identify other products previously presented.  The researchers used eye-tracking software to examine how the participants analyze individual items and the overall arrays of products.


Claudia Townsend, m-commerce, merchandising and design, product images, product information, site design