Can the feeling that you are being watched hinder your willingness to buy? Absolutely.

No shopper likes being watched closely, especially if they’re buying an item they find very personal and potentially embarrassing – for instance, foot fungus cream or haemorrhoid cream. Three marketing professors recently conducted research on this phenomenon and concluded that the problem is real and is relatively easy for retailers to address.

The article in the September issue of the Journal of Retailing attributes the reluctance of shoppers to make a sensitive purchase under watchful eyes to “reactance theory.” When shoppers feel that their privacy or freedom of behaviour is threatened, they will back off, either permanently or temporarily. Retailers must balance their need to control shoplifting with their customers’ need for privacy.

The authors of the study designed a series of studies and field experiments that tested shoppers’ reaction to being watched while shopping for foot fungal cream and haemorrhoid cream. A researcher dressed as a retail employee purposely made eye contact – or not – as customers were surveying the shelves for these items. When eye contact was made, almost two thirds of the customers abandoned the purchase; when it was not made; nearly three quarters completed the buy.

In further studies, the authors tested solutions that would ease customers’ concerns over privacy and yet be easy to implement for retailers – for instance, providing a shopping basket or opaque bag to hide the embarrassing selection. Based on their observations, the authors concluded that retailers who were able to provide shoppers with at least some privacy – even a shopping basket – could circumvent shoppers’ perceptions of being watched and made so uncomfortable that they walked away empty-handed.

For those selling online, do these finding apply to the world of e-commerce? Do customers balk at buying embarrassing products (or any products) if they think their data and buyer behaviour is being monitored? In this case, it is easy to put two and two together.