A recent report issued as part of the Pew Internet & American Life Project found the Internet was, "just one among a variety of sources people use and usually not the key factor in final purchasing decisions." This conclusion is generally consistent with research conducted by Parks Associates (including our study The Changing Consumer Electronics Purchase Process, conducted in late 2007), but I wanted to point out a few interesting details our own studies have uncovered.
The importance of the Internet as a source of information varies by product category. For those purchasing a gaming device, for example, online sources are relatively unimportant, presumably because the differences between devices are substantial. (Few gamers would confuse a Wii and an XBox.) Similarly, online sources are relatively unimportant for commoditized products (like cordless phones, DVD players) or products that nearly demand a first hand inspection (flat panel TVs).
At the same time, online sources are an important source when buying other kinds of products. Over 40% of recent digital video camera buyers, for example, said online sources were the number one source of information; over 35% recent DVD recorder buyers said so.
The importance of online information sources also varies by the kind of consumer doing the buying. Those spending more than $2,000 per year of CE products, for example, are more likely to use online shopping comparison sites. (See the recent Parks Associates white paper Super Buyers for more on this.)
Retail stores remain the dominant information source for shoppers but the Internet does play a notable role all the same.