The Internet is routinely used when making buying decisions, but its influence is small compared with offline channels such as friends and sales personnel, a new study finds.
Sunday's report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project looked at consumer behavior in purchasing music, cell phones and homes or renting apartments. It found the Internet's role to be indirect.
"The Internet helps people eliminate irrelevant alternatives," said John Horrigan, Pew's associate director. "The Internet may influence the choice modestly but has important consequences in getting better deals and in having a more focused search process along the way."
Only about 10 percent of real estate and cell phone buyers and 7 percent of music purchasers credit the Internet with having a major impact on their decision. And only a small portion — 22 percent of the music buyers and 12 percent of cell phone purchasers — ultimately bought their product over the Internet.
"People do cast their information nets widely when doing consumer research," Horrigan said. "At the end of the day, though, it's the offline nugget that has more influence."
And while many people look at recommendations from fellow consumers before buying, few bother to give back to the system by adding their own ratings or comments after a purchase.
Horrigan suggests that consumers are so eager to use what they have just bought, they leave a product research mode and simply forget — risking turning such forums into unreliable accounts by a vocal minority.
The study is based on phone interviews conducted Aug. 3 to Sept. 5, 2007, with 2,400 adults, including 1,684 Internet users. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.