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Why In-Store Mobile Users May Be Grocery Stores’ Best Customers

Why In-Store Mobile Users May Be Grocery Stores’ Best Customers

Dhruv Grewal, Carl-Philip Ahlbom, Lauren Beitelspacher, Stephanie M. Noble and Jens Nordfält

mobile grocer

Listen to the authors present their findings (source: August 2018 JM Webinar)

With its thin margins and perishable products, the grocery industry creates a challenging retail setting. Yet it also has witnessed incredible competition and investment, largely due to its close links to customers who generally shop at least weekly. Thus grocery chains of all sizes are using advanced technologies to deliver exceptional customer experiences. 

We know then that grocery shoppers are mobile users. Customers use their mobile phones to research items, read reviews, and bargain shop. In turn, retailers offer customers mobile apps, digital coupons, and real-time, location-based offers to complement traditional product placements and advertising. However, they worry that distracted customers will spend less – or not buy at all – if they find better offers online or get overwhelmed by information. 


Because grocery shopping is such a frequent touchpoint in customers’ lives, our multi-university research team sought to analyze the impact of general mobile phone use on in-store behavior. In an article published in the Journal of Marketing, we report on two large-scale, eye-tracking field studies with 411 participants across six stores, which we complemented with questionnaire and purchase data. Our goal was to understand how grocery shoppers using mobile phones behave and what the implications are for grocery retailers. Of the various studies of the impact of mobile marketing, this article is the first to examine how customers’ in-store mobile activity, such as talking, texting, or e-mailing, affects in-store behavior and total spending. 

Leveraging attention capacity theories, we hypothesized that distracted grocery shoppers using their mobile devices slow down and spend more time in stores. We also issued a challenge to the conventional wisdom that customers walk the perimeter of the store, then selectively weave up and down aisles to find needed items before returning to their outer-loop route. We hypothesized instead that mobile phone use would increase customers’ diversions or unplanned wandering from the perimeter, exposing them to more goods, which then would increase per trip spending. 

The first field study analyzed customer behavior in four large grocery stores in suburban Stockholm, Sweden. The 294 participants in the eye-tracking study also completed a short questionnaire. Tobii Pro portable eye-tracking glasses recorded the participants’ visual fields as they shopped. We collected the glasses and questionnaires and made copies of purchase receipts as participants exited. 

More than 90 hours of video was coded, measuring total time in store and the level of “shelf attention” customers gave to products and price tags on shelves. We also used the eye-tracking software to assess movements and whether customers diverted from the outer-loop path that they typically take through stores. Next, it was coded whether participants used a mobile phone during the shopping trip and gathered their spending from their actual receipts. 

Three key findings emerge from this study. First, mobile phone use while shopping increases the amount of time shoppers spend in the store, which increases their spending level. Second, mobile phone use increases shelf attention and the likelihood of outer-loop diversions — both of which drive up spending. Third, this distracted spending effect increases with the shopper’s age. 

With a second study, we sought to replicate these findings and account for a possible weakness of the first study, namely, that customers self-selected into the mobile phone use or non-use groups. In this case, we randomly recruited participants in two stores and assigned them to two groups: able to use their mobile phones or restricted from using them. According to the 24 hours of video footage we generated, among people who could use their phones, only 18.9% used them for shopping-related tasks. However, 92.5% used their phones for unrelated tasks. The results again suggested that mobile phone use increased the time they spent in the store, their shelf attention, and the likelihood of outer-loop diversions, all of which increased the dollars they spent. 

Finally, we considered the impact of mobile phone use in checkout lines, where customers are relatively immobile. We observed 932 customers, 132 of whom were using mobile devices. In this unique scenario, mobile phone use actually decreased purchases of impulse items in the checkout lane, from 13.2% to 5.3% of customers. Distraction did not pay off in this part of the store. 

Retailers thus might increase purchases by encouraging customers to engage with their phones, such as by adding quick-response codes to products or making wi-fi more readily available. Overall, our studies show that distracted mobile phone users buy more as they walk through stores, without experiencing any negative effects on their satisfaction. Further research is needed to specify how mobile phone use affects shopping behavior in different departments; how specific mobile tasks influence shopping; and how customers behave when they are not moving, such as standing at deli or meat counters or checking out. This study also could be replicated with different types of retailers, such as department stores.

Read the full article​.

Dhruv Grewal, Carl-Philip Ahlbom, Lauren Beitelspacher, Stephanie M. Noble, and Jens Nordfält (2018) “In-Store Mobile Phone Use and Customer Shopping Behavior: Evidence from the Field,” Journal of Marketing, 82 (4), 102-126.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Dhruv Grewal is Toyota Chair of Commerce and Electronic Business and Professor of Marketing, Babson College, USA.

Carl-Philip Ahlbom is a doctoral student in Marketing, Stockholm School of Economics.

Lauren Beitelspacher is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Babson College.

Stephanie M. Noble is Proffitt’s Professor of Marketing, University of Tennessee.

Jens Nordfält is Assistant Professor, Stockholm School of Economics.