No doubt, you’ve seen the videos and perhaps even had a good chuckle: a person is walking along the street while looking at their mobile phone when, all of a sudden, they find themselves falling into a hole or stumbling into a fountain. Although it’s hard to immediately envision a marketing implication of such unfortunate scenarios, they do reveal a fundamental truth that can either benefit or harm the effectiveness of marketing activities: distracted consumers experience a diminished capacity to devote attention to a focal task.
Marketers have a variety of focal tasks or goals that they want consumers to accomplish. These include understanding the message of an advertisement, making planned purchases, signing up for a free offer or trial, following through on some intended action, and properly setting up, using, storing, and maintaining purchased products.
And, not surprisingly, a key source of distraction to consumers for many, if not all, of these tasks is the mobile phone. According to research reported by the Pew Research Center and eMarketer, 95% of U.S. consumers own a mobile phone, nearly 77% own a smartphone, and adults spend nearly three hours a day consuming digital media via a mobile device.
Planned Versus Unplanned Purchases
Although it seems likely that the distraction capability of a mobile phone is generally an adversary to the goals of the marketer, this may not always be the case. For example, when consumers are highly focused on the focal task of shopping for planned purchases, they are less likely to make unplanned purchases – a desirable goal to the retailer.
In fact, some prior research shows that using a mobile phone for shopping-related tasks (e.g., checking prices) reduces unplanned purchases, whereas using a mobile phone for tasks unrelated to shopping (e.g., social media) increases unplanned purchases. Still, the net effect of mobile phone use on consumers’ in-store purchases is unknown.
With this in mind, an article in the Journal of Marketing, “In-Store Mobile Phone Use and Customer Shopping Behavior: Evidence from the Field,” written by a research team from Babson College, Stockholm School of Economics, and University of Tennessee, answers the following questions:
- Does mobile phone use in stores influence purchases?
- What mechanisms are responsible for this effect?
- What are the boundary conditions for the mobile phone effect?
- Does distraction due to mobile phone use decrease or increase customer satisfaction with the shopping experience?
Research on Mobile Phone Use and Shopping Behavior
The research team conducted two similar studies using a combination of eye-tracking software, sales receipts, and survey responses. The researchers requested participation from 294 shoppers at four grocery stores in the first study and 117 shoppers at two grocery stores in the second study. In both studies, each shopper was provided a pair of eye-tracking glasses to wear during their shopping trip.
The research team used the eye-tracking video from the glasses to measure how long the shopper was in the store, how much attention was given to items on shelves, and how often the shopper turned around from their natural shopping path.
In the first study, the video was also used to determine if the shopper used their mobile phone. In contrast, shoppers in the second study were randomly requested to either use their mobile phone at some point during their shopping trip or not to do so.
The results of both studies are consistent. The analyses revealed that in-store mobile phone use increases overall purchases, and this effect is due to consumer distraction. Here is a summary of the key findings of the two studies:
- When shoppers use a mobile phone in-store – even briefly (less than 1 minute for these shoppers, on average) – they are more likely to be distracted from their focal shopping task.
- When distracted by mobile phone use, consumers take longer to complete their shopping task. As they spend more time in the store, they are more likely to make other purchases.
- When distracted by mobile phone use, consumers are more likely to slow down or stop momentarily as they make their way through the store. This gives them more opportunities to pay attention to products on shelves and displays which leads to additional purchases.
- When distracted by mobile phone use, consumers are more likely to deviate from their natural path through a store as they walk by items they intend to buy. When they loop back around to pick up missed items, they are exposed to other items which increases the amount purchased.
- The distraction effects of mobile phone use are more likely with older consumers (those 32+ –sorry to most everyone reading this!).
Implications for Marketers and Consumers
Overall, the research makes it clear that in-store mobile phone use is a net positive for retailers. This is especially true given that there was no difference in shopping satisfaction between those who did and did not use a mobile phone while shopping in each study.
As such, it would be beneficial – at least in terms of consumer purchases – for retailers to encourage in-store mobile phone use. However, only certain types of use seem to have the desired distraction effect. Based on prior research as well as some analyses in the current article, only mobile phone use that is unrelated to the shopping task leads to more unplanned purchases. As such, targeted promotions by a retailer to in-store shoppers may be valuable for achieving other goals, but not for increasing overall level of purchases. In contrast, providing free wi-fi and charging ports in shopping carts may very well have the intended effect on purchases.
More broadly, the research suggests that shopper distraction is the true means to the end of more consumer purchases, not mobile phone use per se. In fact, additional analyses by the research team showed the same effects as mobile phone use when the shopper was shopping with someone else (another source of distraction). With this in mind, a retailer should consider other types of distraction that the shopper might enjoy during their store visit, such as various forms of entertainment, playing of games, and so on.
Beyond the retailer, this research also has implications for shoppers. If you want to stick to your plan and avoid making unplanned purchases, then it’s best that you stay off that mobile device while shopping – at least until you get to the checkout line.
Grewal, D., Ahlbom, C.-P., Beitelspacher, L., Noble, S. M., & Nordfält, J. (2018). “In-Store Mobile Phone Use and Customer Shopping Behavior: Evidence from the Field.” Journal of Marketing, 82(4), 102–126.