Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies

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The virtual consumer: broadening the scope of teleshopping

Principal Researcher

Dr Peter Lunt
Department of Psychology
University College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
+44 (0)171 504 5401


Ms Liz Moor
University College London

Research Period
1 October 1997 to
30 September 1999
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


The retail and distribution sector is one of the UK's most important industries, contributing 11% to the GDP. The development of electronic commerce is at the forefront of innovation in this area, and presents a number of challenges, both technical and cultural, to existing patterns of consumption and distribution.

Electronic commerce is a rapidly developing area, and it is for this reason that social scientific research can make a positive contribution to the design, implementation and evaluation of teleshopping services. In addition, the sudden proliferation of these services and the fact that they are developing in a number of different directions means that academic research conducted over the next few years may be able to make significant contributions to our theoretical understanding of consumption and the 'virtual society'.

Aims and Objectives

The main aims of the project are to:

  • develop consumption theory to take account of developments in electronic commerce. Since consumption theory has so far been developed mainly in relation to face-to-face modes of consumption, the results of this research will present important challenges and insights
  • provide new data which integrates social and psychological variables with the use of electronic commerce, and which compares teleshopping with existing forms of consumption
  • relate aspects of the design and implementation of teleshopping services to key social psychological variables which affect intentions to use electronic commerce
  • provide an analysis of consumers' understandings of the broader regulatory and social context of new technologies
  • make a methodological contribution by introducing a new application of user trials in the context of social psychological consumption research.

Project Design

There are four parts to the research project:

  • review of the literature and existing teleshopping services to identify the likely dimensions of consumers' experiences and to pilot existing Internet and CD-ROM services for use in later stages of research
  • qualitative research involving sixteen focus groups among a cross-section of the population to identify the representative dimensions of both everyday shopping and electronic commerce. Salient group profiles will be constructed from an analysis of the interrelation between variables of gender, age, social class and existing use of IT
  • user trials of specific Internet and CD-ROM teleshopping services, conducted in forty eight homes. These allow household members to try out the services on offer, and then to complete a semi-structured household interview. Using findings from the first two stages of the research, the project seeks reactions to teleshopping services in terms of consumption theory, the perceived benefits and barriers of the technology, potential technical and service developments and views on issues of security, regulation and consumer rights
  • consumer survey among 1000 consumers based on previous stages of research to assess interest, understanding and evaluation of a variety of potential arrangements for teleshopping. These will be related to the perceived benefits and barriers of teleshopping services, and to broader social and demographic variables. This data will then be subject to statistical analysis.


This project has both theoretical and practical implications. It provides an important contribution to consumption theory, which so far has concentrated mainly on face-to-face modes of consumption, and plays a part in theorising the changing relation between public and private spaces of consumption, as well as the likely impact of increased information both for and about consumers. There will also be a theoretical contribution to the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in understanding user requirements as a complex social practice rather than as a set of communicative or cognitive competences.

The results will be of practical value to those concerned with the provision of teleshopping services in both the commercial and the public sphere. In particular the design of teleshopping services will benefit from a deeper understanding of user characteristics. The consumer survey will provide information on the understanding and evaluation of these services from the wider public who represent the potential future market for such services.


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