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Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services

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Online social capital: Understanding e-impulse buying in practice

Ronan de Kervenoael a,b,, D. Selcen O. Aykac c, Mark Palmer b
Sabanci University, 34959 Orhanli, Tuzla, Istanbul, Turkey
Aston Business School, Aston University, Aston triangle, Birmingham E4 7ET, UK
Ozyegin University, Istanbul, Turkey

a r t i c l e in fo abstract

Socially constructed marketing imageries (e.g. e-atmospherics) help consumers while making choices
Keywords: and decisions. Still, human and retailing technology interactions are rarely evaluated from a social
Retail behaviour practice perspective. This article explores the potential impact of socially constructed e-atmospherics
E-impulse on impulse buying. A framework with three interrelated factors, namely social acoustic, co-construction
Social atmospherics/capital and practice and mundane language enactment is analysed. The way these allow for e-social norms to organically
emerge is elaborated through a set of propositions. Retailing implications are subsequently discussed.
Crown Copyright & 2009 Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction models (TAM). Hitherto research studies have employed a

deterministic technological perspective from a macro-level
Research indicates that virtual store layouts and atmospherics (top-down) without any appreciation of (i) the social capital
are encouraging consumers to modify their shopping habits ‘acoustic’ at the micro-level, (ii) the grounded day-to-day practice
towards engaging more deeply with the online channel (Burke, of information communication technology (ICT) including co-
2002; Dailey, 2004; Eroglu et al., 2001; Vrechopoulos et al., 2002). construction of meanings and (iii) digital and social connecting
Specifically, it has been found that the online medium facilitates mechanisms. In our context, ICT is defined as the cornerstone on
impulse buying behaviour (Greenfield, 1999; Li et al., 2000). At the which post-industrial societies’ ‘productions’ are based, in transi-
same time, economic and social changes such as credit cards, cash tion via ever more powerful technological tools that will allow the
machines, and 247 retailing, impulsive buying opportunities movement from an information age to a (socially related)
are rising significantly (Dittmar and Drury, 2000; Kacen and Lee, knowledge-based society.
2002; Rook, 1987). While an emerging literature has mainly In turn, social acoustic is also a multi-dimensional concept.
focused on the functional cues of e-atmospherics, little has It can be defined as a sum of web experiences’ elements (e.g.
been done in terms of understanding the sociality and practice usability, aesthetics), web site technical abilities (e.g. navigation
of impulse buying (Hui et al., 1997; Spangenberg et al., 1996). bar, integration with other software, structure) and users’ life-
Practice, is defined within three broad parameters, including styles’ symbols including norms, art, posture, gender, politics,
practitioners (the actors or individuals actually using/experien- learning rates/capabilities, online intellectual investment, refer-
cing/creating in our case social acoustic), practices the social, ence points, histories and experiences with shopping channels.
symbolic and material tools through which work is done and Acoustics are assumed to be recognized and positively experi-
praxis that embraces the flow, intensity and timing of activities enced only if the social elements are aligned and resonate in all
(Jarzabkowski et al., 2007).1 the above dimensions. The chemical reactions require dynamic,
A gap exists in our understanding of how e-atmospherics have repeated and value-driven integration and interaction of all
been portrayed in the literature. Our approach draws on a number stakeholders, i.e., technology, content providers, the amalgam of
of intellectual traditions, including social network theory, strate- users (both active and passive; personal or business), the linked
gic management, innovation studies and technology acceptance partners (e.g. advertisers, information providers, forums, suppli-
ers), and third party such as security certifications and legal
partners. The association and role(s) of each stakeholder including
 Corresponding author at: Sabanci University, 34959 Orhanli, Tuzla, Istanbul,
their past experiences and their expected contributions will lead
Turkey. Tel.: +90 2164839707; fax: +90 2164839699.
E-mail addresses: dekervenoael@sabanciuniv.edu (R. de Kervenoael),
to the (co)creation of specific ambiances and moods conducive
Selcen.aykac@ozyegin.edu.tr (D.S.O. Aykac), m.j.palmer@aston.ac.uk (M. Palmer). (or not) to organic impulse buying behaviour.2 At this point,
A range of special issues on this topic include: European Management
Review (McKiernan and Carter, 2004); Human Relations (Balogun et al., 2007);
Long Range Planning (Cailluet and Whittington, 2008); Journal of Management That is to say, practice is conceptualized as a social activity, constructed
Studies (Johnson et al., 2003); Revue Francaise de Gestion (Rouleau et al., 2007). through the actions, interactions and negotiations of multiple actors (Jarzabkowski

0969-6989/$ - see front matter Crown Copyright & 2009 Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Please cite this article as: de Kervenoael, R., et al., Online social capital: Understanding e-impulse buying in practice. Journal of
Retailing and Consumer Services (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jretconser.2009.02.007

2 R. de Kervenoael et al. / Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services ] (]]]]) ]]]–]]]

offline shopping cultural capital processes and praxis will have discussion within what Smith (1996) termed as ‘styling spaces’ to
been translated to the new channel creating its indigenous, interpret the complexity of e-social lifestyle practices over
specific social acoustic. Taken together, these conscious and e-impulse buying online.4 For impulse buying to be considered,
unconscious cues form the part of the emerging digital culture e-atmospherics need to act/interact together within the de-facto
which users identify and relate with, prompting them to act, think dichotomy of styling spaces in a dynamic setting through which
and relate differently to impulse buying opportunities. Parties outcomes remain uncertain till a product/service is actually
start to inter-relate and inter-mingle with each other as trust in bought (Lee, 2007).
the quality, relevance, validity and value of exchange increases. The following section aims to extend the e-atmospherics
Fine tuning through fictionalization of the information-feeding literature by unpacking and dimensionalising ‘online social
process in areas such as character traits, opinions, and strength contexts’ regarding impulse buying behaviour. The third section
of language is allowing ‘real’ engagement with the e-atmospherics provides a theoretical review of e-atmospherics and impulse
from a dispersed audience. These allow functions and tools buying behaviour to lay out the background for our discussion. It
such as flattery, fear and humour to be fully exploited within also considers early theorizations including technology accep-
boundaries that users (co)define and (co)control. At the outset, tance models and stimulus–organism–response (S–O–R), which
social acoustics could be interpreted as a kind of refresh- are often used to assess the impact of e-atmospherics as well as
ment break offered to users while online, similar to a coffee more recent works from other academic disciplines such as social
break or short-term engagements with friends/colleagues/other presence theory and media richness (Culnan and Markus, 1987),
e-customers (O’Kane et al., 2007). At a broader level, a specific set social information processing theory (Fulk et al., 1990, 1987;
of personalized socially oriented e-atmospherics are de-facto Walther, 1992, 1995), conversation and discourse theory (Taylor
created. et al., 2001) and kernel theory (Markus et al., 2002a). The fourth
There is a need for reflective analysis by interrogating and section extends this theoretical base making a case for reframing
re-dimensionalising the online social aspects of behavioural and reinterpreting e-atmospherics in the context of impulse
phases and sequences related to current ICT understanding and buying as an emerging social practice. Finally, the article
their impacts on impulse buying. Little consensus exists among concludes by outlining a number of theoretical opportunities,
researchers for web site characteristics that affect sociality and managerial implications and avenues for future research, building
consumers in situ (Novak et al., 2000; Srinivasan et al., 2002; a theoretical bridge that embeds socilities within web sites.
Wolfinbarger and Gilly, 2003; Yoo and Donthu, 2001; Zeithaml
et al., 2002). Categorization and listing of attributes are among the
preferred approaches, though there is a need to focus on the social 2. Initial theorization: unpacking e-impulse buying and e-
abstraction of constructs and possible interpretation of meanings atmospherics in practice
both from an individual user or a group of users’ perspective.
We neither contemplate the entire purchase situation nor look at 2.1. Unpacking e-impulse buying
a single characteristic. Instead, we try to go beyond the usual
categorization by integrating the notions of online social capital Early theorization undertaken by marketing scholars has often
‘acoustics’, co-construction of meanings, pervasive mundane conveyed impulse buying as something negative which consu-
usage of ICT and unpredictable impulsive behaviour. mers should feel guilty about. Impulse buying was originally
Our reasoning takes us to theoretical directions that can be perceived to be driven by unethical marketing techniques/tricks
traced back to the work of John Dewey, as recently underscored (Ainslie, 1975; Levy, 1976). An equally important number of works
by Musolf (2003, p. 61): ‘‘Humans are not passive reactors to have now shown that impulse buying satisfies a number of
‘objectively given’ stimuli but are, instead active interpreters of the hedonic desires (Piron, 1991; Rook and Fisher, 1995; Thompson
symbolic nature of stimuli. Objects, communication and interaction et al., 1990). Impulse buyers are now seen to exhibit greater
are infused with culturally derived symbolic meaning’’ rather than feelings of amusement, delight, enthusiasm, and joy (Weinberg
following Milliman and Fugate’s (1993), Eroglu et al.’s (2001), and and Gottwald, 1982). As a definition, impulse buying occurs when
Levenburg’s (2005) works where e-atmospherics mainly encom- a person experiences a sudden urge to buy (Rook and Fisher,
passes the design of space cues, basic harmony and functional 1995). Goods with low marginal needs are often good examples of
service ambiance. These perspectives do not, for example, take impulse buying (Coner, 2003; Youn and Faber, 2000). This sudden
into account consumers as social agents interacting within urge to buy can cause consumers to feel out-of-control (Rook and
dynamic and intangible reference sets; restricted by collective Hoch, 1985). Impulsive buying has also been reported to cause
standards, value, beliefs, status and duties beyond basic online inner emotional conflicts, making impulsive buying an emotional
businesses technical language and regulatory frameworks. decision rather than a rational one (Rook, 1987). As a practice,
Neither does these works analyse, in detail, the constructed logic3 impulse buying has to be differentiated from alternative purchase
behind social information design such as interconnectivity and intentions (Kollat and Willett, 1967). For example, Piron (1991)
engagement, nor do they analyse the timing of the language/ gives 13 different dimensions of impulse buying (Fig. 1). Yet,
information used. That is to say, the human contact/computer all ‘unplanned’ purchases such as regular re-stocking are not
interaction (or isolation) as a reflection of the offline social world considered impulsive behaviour just by remembering that one is
has yet to be fully integrated. We further position our theoretical out of stock (Stern, 1962). Indeed, knowing what type of product
to buy but not knowing exactly which brand to buy, is also
not strictly considered to be impulse buying (Stern, 1962). Most
(footnote continued) authors do not consider the product to be the sole responsible
et al., 2007). But, the actors are also ‘‘part of social groups—social elites or social trigger for impulse buying behaviour, a distinction is made
outsiders—that need to be understood as part of a larger picturey’’ Whittington,
2006, p. 628). Jarzabkowski (2005, p. 47) points out that these sources are often
‘‘overlooked because they are hidden in the everyday tasks that constitute a stream of Earlier work in the area of physical social spaces pioneered by Whyte (1971),
activity.’’ Miller et al. (1998), Gronow and Warde (2001), Shove (2003), Gregson et al. (2002)
The concept of logic (Thornton, 2002, 2004), refers to the broad cultural and Gregson and Crewe (2003) are also of particular relevance. The ways people
beliefs and rules that structure cognition and fundamentally shape decision- attach meanings to geographical spaces such as parks, shopping malls, and car
making and action in a field (see also Fiss and Zajac, 2004). boot sales are mirrored in this research.

Please cite this article as: de Kervenoael, R., et al., Online social capital: Understanding e-impulse buying in practice. Journal of
Retailing and Consumer Services (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jretconser.2009.02.007

R. de Kervenoael et al. / Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services ] (]]]]) ]]]–]]] 3

Dimensions of Impulse Buying

Unplanned purchase
Response to stimulus
Deliberately planned to benefit from offers Consumer Characterictics of Impulse
Thrill seeking Buying
Decision made on the spur of the moment
Result of a deliberation process
Not a response to a previous problem
No prior buying intentions
Sudden and spontaneous desire to act
State of psychological disequilibrium
Shopping enjoyment
Psychological conflict and struggle
Impulse buying tendency
Reduction of cognitive evaluation
Degree of self-discrepancies
No evaluation of consequences
Source: (Parboteeah, 2005) Source: (Parboteeah, 2005)


Online Environment Web Experience Elements

Web Site Capabilities
Navigation bar Navigation bar Functionality Pyschological Content Factors
Next & previous Next & previous Factors Factors
links links USABILITY Transaction AESTHETICS
Favorites Site search Convenience security Design
Site map Site map Information Customer Presentation
Toolbar search Pop-up window architecture data misuse Quality
facilities hyperlinks Site navigation Customer Design elements
Pop-up window Layout—grid / INTERACTIVITY data safety Style/atmosphere
hyperlinks freedom /racetrack Customer servi- Uncertainty MARKETING
Security Visual appeal ce/after sales reducing MIX
Phishing filter / pop- Navigation Interaction with elements Communication
up blocker Structure / Style company perso- Guarantees/ Fulfillment
Third party Professional nel return Product
protection affiliation Customization policies Price
Tab structure Transaction security Network effects Promotion
Personalization Lean vs. rich media Search facilities/
settings base process
Integration with Language Site speed
other softwares customization Findability/
Menu bar Business model accessability
Command bar Ordering/
payment process
Source: (Constantinides, 2004)

Fig. 1. Dynamics of social capital acoustic.

between ‘outside’ factors and ‘inside’ factors (Kacen and Lee, (Parboteeah, 2005). Online convenience, including self-service
2002; Rook and Hoch, 1985; Weinberg and Gottwald, 1982). and flexibility of tempo are described to lead to impulse buying
Outside factors are embedded in the retail environment itself, e.g. (Iyer, 1989). Although online-shopping lacks certain tactile
store atmosphere (Donovan and Rossiter, 1982), shelf space features that positively influence impulsive buying in a traditional
or display location (Kollat and Willett, 1967). They also include way, online impulsive buying is indeed present (LaRose, 2001).
the social ‘physical’ environmental setting, e.g. group versus solo According to Madhavaram and Laverie (2004) several stimuli that
buying; the purchase occasion, or task environment, e.g. gift are responsible for online impulse purchases can be identified
versus non-gift buying; temporal variables, e.g. evening versus such as images of the product, banner advertisement types, price
daytime purchases (Hoch and Loewenstein, 1991), demographic and special offers. Certain richer and dynamic media formats were
variables (Rook, 1987) and more traditional factors such as short also found to enhance an emotional response that influences the
shelf life, seasonality, ease of storage, size and weight. Inside amount of online buying (Adelaar et al., 2003). When a sense of
factors include consumers’ influence of their normative evaluation excitement is created by the website, consumers are less able to
system (Rook and Fisher, 1995). These take into account control themselves and their shopping behaviour (Constantinides,
consumers’ perception of the appropriateness of impulse beha- 2004). However, a lack of excitement, low social experience and a
viour; past experiences (Dittmar et al., 1996), self-image definition delay in gratification associated with online buying decreases the
and their state of mind when the opportunity to buy arises (Elliott, chances of impulse buying. Unregulated buying behaviour,
1994). One can make a distinction between psychological (mood, resulting from a web site’s efficiency at maximizing its multi-
ideal self, self-expression, social standing) and functional buying media options and economic efficiency, needs to be differentiated
considerations like price and usefulness (Beatty and Ferrell, 1998; from pure impulse buying as a social phenomenon. Personal
Dittmar et al., 1996; Dittmar and Drury, 2000). shopping orientations—especially online—(e.g. convenience,
As yet, few studies have either theoretically or empirically business, recreational) have also been acknowledged as playing
linked e-atmospherics and online impulse buying by specifically a role (Kim and LaRose, 2004) in linking the concept of deficient
analyzing the social impact of the channel itself in creating and self-regulation (LaRose and Eastin, 2002) and attention span. Both
harmonizing the appropriate (socially constructed) atmosphere the switching between orientations and user roles are considered

Please cite this article as: de Kervenoael, R., et al., Online social capital: Understanding e-impulse buying in practice. Journal of
Retailing and Consumer Services (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jretconser.2009.02.007

4 R. de Kervenoael et al. / Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services ] (]]]]) ]]]–]]]

as fluid over a particular session and ought to be directly related characteristics to facilitate social relational features among
to the web site’s sociality ‘in practice. We now turn our attention e-stakeholders when pre-conditions for social coherence are often
to this in the next section. only emerging or absent. New forms of social systems beyond real
life towards virtual worlds need to be designed, accepted and
Proposition 1. Sustainable impulse buying in practice would likely engaged with (e.g., second life experiment). Shaped by the
be encouraged by increasing references to the existent/emerging multimedia possibilities of the online environment, CMC systems
e-social capital. as social atmospherics help in creating new social conventions by
developing situational boundary conditions, individuating im-
2.2. Micro-social practices and e-atmospherics: going beyond the pression of others, preserving certain spatial relationships and
deterministic approaches of social technology matching communication requirements with the task at hand.
Progresses have also been made in understanding the interplay
The literature on e-tail environment draws mainly from two and combination between text, sound and animation where users
theoretical foundations. On one hand, there are the technology can create substantially expressive messages that comprise
acceptance models with three main constructs; perceived ease of representational properties of gaze and iconic gestures (Poggi
use, perceived usefulness and usage (Davis, 1989; Venkatesh et al., and Pelachaud, 2000). The bi-directional and communicational
2003). These are completed by theories such as reasoned action nature of CMC systems facilitate verbal and non-verbal real-time
(TRA), planned behaviour (TRB) and the unified theory of interactive sharing on intuitive socio-cultural grounds including
acceptance and use of technology, adding aspects such as social freedom and control in defining the avatar’s parameters, person-
influences and subjective norm constructs. On the other hand, ality trait, emotional disposition and interests that become crucial
environmental psychology and the stimulus–organism–response for correctly decoding and interpreting each action (Gibbon,
paradigm have also proved to be popular. For example, Sautter et 1998). As a result, the framing of time and perceiving the passage
al. (2004) emphasize potential effects of consumer’s telepresence of time upon repetitive visits/transactions become crucial, as
(Steur, 1992) in a dual environment—the online store environ- higher familiarity yields better interpretation. The definition of
ment and the consumer’s physical environment. S–O–R model the meta communication functions for CMC systems are often
have been further adapted to e-tailing by Eroglu et al. (2001, grounded in three principal theoretical frameworks including
2003). Vividness, interactivity, symbolism, and social elements have social presence theory and media richness (Culnan and Markus,
been described to be the crucial factors. The vividness factor 1987), social information processing theory (Walther, 1995, 1992;
represents the richness of the environmental information (Shih, Fulk et al., 1990, 1987), and conversation and discourse theory
1998). A U-shaped curve is observed pointing at the obvious (Rich et al., 2001).5 Including social acoustics in such frameworks
limitation of excessive stimulation when it is assumed to is surmised to integrate extrinsic social factors that affect the
contribute positively (Steenkamp and Baumgartner, 1992; Keller dynamic course, direction and role of e-stakeholders. Passive
and Block, 1997). The interactivity factor identifies the suscept- and/or active actors/observers would affect the desired outcome
ibility and responsiveness of the online environment (Ariely, inexorably in a non-linear, but often incremental fashion.
2000; Klein, 2003; Steur, 1992) and relates to consumer’s pleasure
Proposition 2a. Traditional e-atmospherics’ deterministic design,
level derived from the online experience (Childers et al., 2001;
detached from the grounded users’ social histories (both online and
Dailey, 2001). The symbolism factor mainly eases navigational
offline) is likely to reduce impulse buying.
issues and provides information on overall site credibility. Lastly,
social elements factors are often represented by the availability Proposition 2b. The lack of bi-directional multimedia infrastruc-
of avatars (Morgan, 1999) and other shopping agents. Other tures to facilitate CMC systems communication is likely to hinder the
traditional elements focusing on cognitive states involve: online correct interpretation of e-social meanings.
communities (Papadopoulou et al., 2001) influencing the con-
sumers’ search and choice (Häubl and Trifts, 2000) via affective/ As previously mentioned, social communication dimensions are
cognitive stages (Sproule and Archer, 2000) that are positively at the core of e-social acoustic. Communication tools initially
correlated; ease of navigation (Hoque and Lohse, 1999; Morris- developed for multiplayer digital game industry, have further
Lee, 2000), perceived risk/security (Hoffman et al., 1999; impacts in creating impulsive e-circumstances. Online store
Szymanski and Hise, 2000), personalization (Mittal and Lassar, layout alternatives as game layout, which are the pre-determinant
1996) and informativeness (Chen and Wells, 1999; Szymanski of e-atmospherics, are currently limited by three main traditional
and Hise, 2000). These works often include taxonomies of log offline layouts: grid, racetrack and/or freedom. First, the notion of
analysis to provide feedback and management information flow ‘space’ needs to be unpacked, by placing more emphasis on
(Labuschagne and Eloff, 2000; Novak et al., 2000; Titus and omnipresent and/or vagrant service perspectives. In most web
Everett, 1995). sites, the notion of topography is fixed but there exists also a
The above factors have to be further integrated with computer- topological and geometrical setting. Web site design can involve a
mediated communication (CMC) systems that have become a dynamic environment in which consumers are allowed to edit/
systemic feature of advanced websites. Avatars (or digital graphic add content. Secondly, the notion of ‘time’ is often too narrowly
design characters) which include personal shoppers/helpers along comprehended as convenience and in the context of time-saving.
with multimodal and autonomous embodied conversational However, time could be seen as an e-atmospheric that includes
agents (ECA) have been providing primitive support and help in real-time or turn-based service/activities/interaction time, mi-
pre-defined communication schemes. Still, CMC systems are too metic or arbitrary passage of time allowing a greater engagement
often perceived as insufficient communication tools devoid of
contingent functionality (Cassell, 2007; Cassell et al., 2000, 2007). 5
For an elaboration of these kinds of theories see for discourse theory Fox and
One concern is related to the minimum breath of acceptable social Miller (1996) in the case of public administration and Keane (2001) in the case of
skills necessary for consumer engagement with CMC systems. ethics. Media richness theory describes how and why people choose a particular
Works by Cassell et al. (2000) and Nass and Brave (2005) have medium to communicate with others in the workplace (Ferry et al., 2001; Daft and
Lengel, 1984). Lastly, social information processing theory ‘‘proposes that attitudes
further highlighted the importance of the practice and ‘doing’ at and needs are cognitive products that results from the processing of information about
micro-consumer level, for engagement with CMC to occur. The attitude object and past behaviour in a social context’’ (Goldman, 2001, p. 362) (see
challenge is to compose the right mix of communicative also Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978).

Please cite this article as: de Kervenoael, R., et al., Online social capital: Understanding e-impulse buying in practice. Journal of
Retailing and Consumer Services (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jretconser.2009.02.007

R. de Kervenoael et al. / Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services ] (]]]]) ]]]–]]] 5

with the activity at hand; finite or infinite depending on the themselves (anti-choice) in everyday situations. The complexities
service (e.g. auction end time). Thirdly, the online experience’ and tensions linked to inconsistent and partial understanding of a
structures that include single and multiple repeat log-ons for language can lead to a divorce between the channel processes
individuals or teams, as well as private (own social acoustics) vs. and the expected outcome; either from the retailer or consumer
public space (shared social acoustics) are often underrated. perspective and further digital divides within society. Subtle
Fourthly, greater control and flexibility mechanisms online can differences between verbal interaction and online social practices
be implemented including static, power-up or experience level- should be observed by marketers as a contested process. The next
ling functions and save-ability, either conditional or unlimited. section further extends the modern understanding of digital
Lastly, many web sites seem to underestimate the potential of communication by introducing concepts that goes beyond the
rules/objectives, they are mainly fixed and not depending on the signifiers towards the signified.
position (e.g. loyalty level) of the consumer (European Commis- Language choices are not only keys for proficient communica-
sion, 2001). It is clear that a strategy needs to be in place to tion, along with orthography and proper grammatical setting, but
understand better communication via design issues related with also relate to how we read sentences or texts on WebPages, in
interconnectivity and generic/specific social information require- practice where we start and end. In English, we read from left to
ment. right, and the given information is typically towards the beginning
of the sentence, whereas new information is towards the end.
Proposition 3a. Communication setting practices for e-impulse Myers (1994) also refers to the visual geography consisting of a
(mundane language(s) actually used to communicate) as develop- combination of pictures on the right-hand side and text on the
ment tools for e-sociality are likely to encourage appropriate left-hand side. Further, standards or norms also mean that the
decoding of social meaning. product or the logo is usually placed in the lower right-hand
Proposition 3b. Digital games derived social e-atmospherics’ praxes corner (see also Kress and van Leeuwen, 1990). Following this, the
are likely to encourage organic e-impulse buying behaviour. length of the text displayed on a webpage (requirement to scroll
down or not below the fold), as well as active/passive keywords
Multitasking and pluralism from a strategy perspective and extra information supplied via hypertext raises other
(a common activity online) is not to any great extent taken into concerns (Chaffey, 2007). Distractions such as interactive features
account by most atmospherics (Palmer and O’Kane, 2007). including banner (static or dynamic) or pop-up windows and
Pluralism, from a user perspective, reflects the fact that compet- sound are also present cluttering communication and creating
ing, yet equally legitimate, demands and/or tasks co-exist. Issues noise within the process. While the right combination of layout
of confidence (e.g. being able to pause without the fear of losing and text is found to enhance readers’ friendliness, not much is
their current basket or not being able to come back) and available about social impact in general and social capital creation
organizational aspects (e.g. no memorization of credit card details, in particular. Furthermore, since most of the text regarding e-
ID details) co-exist. E-multitasking resulting from the numerous atmospherics is written, it is crucial to look at the difference
concurrent active software and other applications creates many between spoken and written languages (Halliday, 1985; Leech,
interruptions diminishing the value of the experience at worst, 1966). Issues of alphabetization in emerging m-societies are not
distracting at best. These debates are often being reduced to a discussed here, but are also of increasing relevance.
single dimension, the rise or limitation in machine performance Online written language, as opposed to novels, poetry or jokes
allowing (or not) the constant display of unrelated information, for example, lacks sounds and prosodic features such as stress,
rather than taking into account users’ cognitive and behavioural tone, intonation and rhythm. Simply put, prosodic features help
capacity and willingness. This perspective brings into play the transmit emotions or sometimes disambiguate meaning during
importance of viewing social e-atmospherics and impulse buying reading and speaking actions. In written language some of these
as ways to develop understanding methods through which to features are substituted with vocabulary and punctuation. Online,
access situated practices. Language, as a day-to-day communica- new forms of signs and syntax are appearing such as and new
tion ritual that facilitates emerging social capital ‘acoustic’ stock, types of abbreviation often derived from mobile phone short
is further discussed in the next section. message services (SMS) experiences, e.g., 4U (for you). In addition,
graphology can also reflect emphasis in written texts especially
Proposition 4. Using social norm re-enforcement to control con- in ads on a webpage. Myers (1994) mentions techniques such
sumer situated ‘practices’ is likely to increase the effect of e-impulse as changing the print size of letters or words, using words or
buying cues. expressions repeating the same letters, using unpredicted spelling
or using shapes within the writing to attract the attention of the
2.3. Digital online language processing as a contested social practice: reader (catchy print). Alternative usual ways of attracting reader
explaining the concept of online acoustics attention include playing with sentence structure or using puns,
metaphors and slogans (Tanaka, 1994). Vague language, implica-
Online language and communication processes are still often ture, ellipses and hedges are exploited by web content creators
beset by technological difficulties including slow progress of voice who appear to be saying or claiming things when they are usually
recognition software. What we are witnessing is the emergence not (Van Gijsel et al., 2007). Another resource for digital language
of new active and interactive language styles and principles. creators is the exploitation of stylistic sources such as language
We assume a more active role for language applications in variety (accents, dialects) and language register (formal/informal/
practice, specifically as a sustainable way to build (create and co- casual) (Bell, 1999; Piller, 2003; Van Gijsel et al., 2007). How much
create) online social capital, allowing a mundane countenance technical information or even jargon a particular website should
of e-shopping to fully emerge. At the broadest level, the question contain seems to be a crucial decision (see audience design, Bell
of language choice remains crucial because of over reliance on 1984). Assuming that the target audience of e-atmospherics
English. Even if consumers understand their lingua franca, it is would be a computer literate one, in comparison to TV advertising
important to mediate their overall experiences of the channel by audience (which might not be literate at all) it would be more
how comfortable they are when using it and how they bring into likely to encounter an e-formal or a specific cyber style (loyal/club
play the use of non-native websites or translated equivalents. members). Language that appeals to different groups of interest
What is important is how consumers act, interact and limit or age groups (kids, teenagers, adults) should not be overlooked.

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The emergence of street cyber-language, mirroring the plurality of Table 1

languages and online voices are driving in part social (re)inter- Levels of information conceptualization and representation.
pretation and engagement (Kornberger et al., 2006). Moreover,
Level of Level of representation
ethical digital language that is appropriate for children, avoiding conceptualization
offensive language and stereotypes are also influencing the Low High
sociality of websites.
It is not unsurprising, then, that gender is also an issue related Low Qualitative observations & Data delivery services; news,
reports; gossip; business journals; infotainment;
not only to the targeted audience or consumers, but also as a intelligence reports; skills commercial mass software;
mediator of digital language diffusion and acceptance. Herring descriptions; undocumented datasets and databases; shared
(2007a, b) notes that gender is visible even in an environment policies resources for academic group
such as the Internet, more specifically text-based computer- High Theory ideas; paradigms; Professional services;
representation of ideas and courseware; scientific
mediated communication, which normally is thought of as having
notions; business and publishing; patents, insurances,
no trace of information as to gender, race, and social class. management consulting; contracts; scientific software;
Features of a participant’s discourse style seem to give away formalized organizational models; business process
information about a person’s gender. Herring (2007a) lists some routines and norms models; knowledge-based
of these linguistic features as the following: verbosity, assertive- systems; management reports;
R&D results
ness, use of profanity, politeness (and rudeness), typed represen-
tations of smiling and laughter, degree of interactive engagement Source: Kraaijenbrink and Wijnhoven (2006).
and alignment towards interlocutors (Coates, 1993). In practice
this requires a rethinking of gender appropriateness online,
including where the user is in effect masking their real sexual
category. Lastly, lexical choice is not only important in terms of prescription consisting of a particular class of user requirements, a
gender, but also reflecting the trends of the day, i.e. buzz words. set of system solutions (y), and a set of effective development
practices’’ (Markus et al., 2002b, p.180). These allow the incre-
Proposition 5. Cultural investment by practitioners in contested
mental updating of web sites where content creators can change
language evolution is likely to disambiguate lexical choice.
parts of databases (e.g. color, design, content, sub-content)
One added aspect suggests that media presence and richness without disturbing the overall aim. From a product information
through language is also related to the notions of polyphony or perspective, Kernel Theories6 have been used to identify relevant
e-polyphony (Kornberger et al., 2006). Polyphony represents the descriptive and exploratory meta-elements leading to good
variety of sounds heard at a specific point in time within the ‘platform/web design content’. The level of conceptualization
environment. It has a direction, allowing or distracting from of information goods from a content perspective needs to be
current flow, an intensity, rhythm and resonance. E-polyphony, in underlined (Table 1). Moreover, depending on the stakeholders
our context, represents socially constructed offline language and the type of information (e.g., for private or social benefit;
sound systems as well as digitally produced sounds or silences transparent or opaque; many or few intermediaries, demand level
made by the sites. The social manners of these sounds are and ability to pay level) such a conceptualization might uncover
reflecting, supporting and reproducing language text and image; underlying dynamics present at different levels of purchase
forming meanings and the ‘acoustics’ of the online experiences. behaviour. In this regard, user information satisfaction in areas
The impacts of silences or ‘‘action without words’’ are important such as accuracy, format, ease of use and timeliness would also be
in the co-construction of personal individual e-atmospherics. It is fully relevant (Doll and Torkzadeh, 1988). Besides, the levels of
clear that different lifestyles and plurality need to be reflected usage frequency and intensity would become crucial, as the
in the aesthetic aspects of mundane digital language day to day necessity of prior experienced purchase might diminish.
usage. As described by Büscher et al. (2001, p. 1), ‘‘These
Proposition 7. Effective development practices of sociality are likely
perspectives help to identify the ‘socilities’ of people and technologies
to increase the transition from information to knowledge.
and of the relationships between them. They help to distinguish
different forms of cooperation with differing support needs, oppor-
tunities and vulnerabilities. They inform the design of technical
3. Discussion
support, the assessment of outcomes, and the design of further
solutions, in a cycle of ‘situated experimentation’’’. Integral to the
sense making process is the alignments of text, photos, avatar Grounding the role of e-atmospherics in both social practice
behaviours and sounds in the formation, understanding, and and in users’ activities remains an important task for retailers.
correct interpretation of social meanings. Within this new form of online space activities, opportunities for
deeper, clearer, more believable and meaningful communications
Proposition 6. Timing and sequencing (praxis) of social polyphony’ and exchange are present. The nature of the social cues allows for
intensity are likely to increase engagement with e-impulse buying synchronous and asynchronous communications, permitting hu-
process. man nature to nurture social subtleties and organic impulse-
buying behaviour. Emerging organic e-impulse-buying behaviour
Lastly, in addition to the previous issues, there is a demand for a should be deemed as the by-product of the co-construction
better understanding of social informational cues through undertaken by e-stakeholders via engagement with the power
application of language. Drawing insights from the area of design of social language, the resources of words as template providers,
theory for digital information services, we complete our frame- mnemonics, immediacy, tension and technology-emergent
work by presenting the existing models in which our acoustic cues
could be integrated (Kraaijenbrink and Wijnhoven, 2006). Walls
et al. (1992) define a design theory as ‘‘a prescriptive theory based Kernel theory is from natural or social sciences governing design require-
ments and the design process itself. ‘‘It aims at creating a set of testable design
on theoretical underpinning which says how a design process can be process hypotheses which can be used to verify whether or not the design method
carried out in a way which is both effective and feasible’’ (Walls et al., result in an artifact which is consistent with the meta-design’’ (Walls et al., 1992,
1992, p. 37). Such design theories consist of ‘‘an integrated p. 43) (see also Mintzberg (1973) work on managerial work).

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R. de Kervenoael et al. / Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services ] (]]]]) ]]]–]]] 7

humanity. Communication expectations and processes will then followed and associated with other parties to form social groups
evolve from a utilitarian discussion, as a functional deterministic in-between time and more functional activities linked to the
tool, towards social conversations, as a societal practice. Only shopping process. Our contribution recognizes the complicity of
then, will the path for long-term loyalty and differentiation in socialities, acoustics and technology in every day assembly of the
today’s fiercely competitive environment be traced back to online content.
marketers. Their e-atmospherics strategies will be deemed Second, role of each online actor is re-dimensionalised in terms
recognizable, credible, sufficient to act upon and value-enabling. of co-creation. Impulse buying is seen as an activity driven by the
As users become acclimatized to the overall site ‘social value added which underpins the online business models rather
acoustics’, marketers’ technology ought to then deploy higher than promoting another marketing tactic to push user consump-
levels of socially embedded cues to maximize variety, leverage tion. This should be seen as an extension of the existing
learning and loyalty opportunities. Furthermore, it seems that infrastructure, as it decreases the complexity of implementation
the initial conceptualization of e-atmospherics has been mainly and management. Content and user intellectual investment
based on one-way models, that provided the user with little real remain critical.
choice or opportunities for content creation and control. These Finally, in contrast to most research on e-atmospherics that
reductionist views of the channel did not fully permit multiple focuses mainly on the functional aspects and impacts of cues,
spatial scales (e.g. text, picture, ECA, sound, co-branding and we have attempted to conceptualize the system in situ. The
content creation) to be implemented limiting the prospects for channel currently seems to have been high jacked by a minority
the development of a sustainable online ‘social acoustic’. The of stakeholders and a re-distribution of power is necessary.
literature often considers technological diffusion and adoption as To capture the real opportunities, lower scepticism and newly
the main concerns overlooking basic requirements of both fostered alliances are needed involving, for example, C2C models.
advanced and disadvantaged users regarding the social meaning While the first round of the battle has been won by technologists;
and interpretation of the content. Marketers ought to approach e- as the channel is being recognized and engaged with, the second
socialites and ICT as ubiquitous and pervasive within everyday sustainability/profitability round has to be marketer-driven
practice, rather than separate and isolated ones. Technological and will only be possible by the development of sociality and
development and construction of meanings cannot be separated. mundane features, the creation of a true sense of well being and
Some machines do have relative thinking capabilities and respect between the actors.
humanity allowing them to partially participate in the minutia Taken together, the article provides a more holistic view
of the social exchange. These emerging digital micro-social of the online consumer practice as a co-creator and consumer of
processes are re-defining e-social communication management socialities. This is a significant step towards a better under-
and administration. Advanced e-atmospherics allow sites’ rhetoric standing of online consumer practice and the emerging repre-
to be filtered through multiple regular contacts. Consecutively, an sentations of cyber cultural capital necessary for the channel to
evolution of the communication process providing matched or achieve sustainability. Indeed, the locus of power ought to be
‘real’ user congruence within the pluralism of the channel is shifting from technologists to retailers and consumers. We believe
assembled in a non-deterministic fashion. E-impulse buying logic that, while valuable, most of the functional e-atmospherics
can then organically emerge. constructs used are too vague because of the numerous ways
E-atmospherics need to be co-constructed and co-branded by in which day to day practice(s) are enacted by users. While
all the stakeholders. This will lead to a fundamental rethink of the unplanned online impulse behaviour remains complex; accepted,
online human social dimension that should translate marketers’ emotional and cognitive points of references are required to
strategies into actions and doing. What does it mean to interact/ facilitate challenging buying behaviour. Our approach also has
communicate online? What does it mean to co-create content/ important implications for retailers. The multi-scalar nature
brand? What does it mean to be in (out of) control? In our context, of online users as consumer of technology, social capital and
the pervasive element of technological progress becomes central information mean that appropriate socially understood interfaces
to comprehending ‘achievable’. Just like a good instructor, a good offer a great potential often at a low cost (social knowledge versus
web site ‘acoustic’ would stick in our memories, have a sound technology costs). This suggests that in the future, normative
knowledge, kindle interests and challenge assumptions. evaluations of impulse buying will need to be assessed against the
cyber-cultural capital created online and not using only the offline
traditional point of references.
4. Conclusion A reminder is that most companies cannot afford to give all
their customers all experiences. However, the ideas of experience-
Given the contested process of online cultural capital building based differentiation (EBD) (Financial Times, 2007) as a systema-
and the wide range of e-atmospherics, reflections imply that tic approach to interaction seem to be currently the only
the current retailers’ strategy using a one-size—fits-all model sustainable leveraging asset in rapidly transforming digital
may have reached its limits. We argue that a new generation of societies. By its very nature, experiences are mainly rooted in
experiential/relational web sites should be designed. These ought mundane activities and social capital building. Social acoustic
to include more subjective, qualitative, local social norms of effect acts as an integrator of technology. This framework sees the
information delivery towards creating social knowledge. This will pluralism of social capital, emphasizing the importance of ‘net-
enable retailers to form and engage with socially constructed new work innovation’ that allow mass audiences not only to access but
online groups. Two aspects including content origin formation participate in online social development at the dawn of a new era
and social experiences are particularly relevant. of digital lives. In our context, users’ social requirement have often
This article makes a three-fold contribution to the literature. outpaced technology adaptation rate. Social ‘acoustics’ will allow
First and foremost, it provides the additional lens of social the development of retailers’ strategies using platforms that will
‘acoustics’ for understanding social e-atmospherics potential in define new categories rather than competing in large with pre-
the context of impulse buying. At the basic level, we argue for a existing setting within what can largely be described as an
certain level of social momentum, where complex sets of existing captive market. While we have situated our discussion in
emotional and intellectual attributes allow users’ actions and the context of impulse buying, and transactional web sites,
reactions to be fully integrated and build upon. This is quickly we underline that we still are not sure where in effect social

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Retailing and Consumer Services (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jretconser.2009.02.007

8 R. de Kervenoael et al. / Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services ] (]]]]) ]]]–]]]

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Please cite this article as: de Kervenoael, R., et al., Online social capital: Understanding e-impulse buying in practice. Journal of
Retailing and Consumer Services (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jretconser.2009.02.007