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In-Store Mobile Usage: Much Ado About Nothing – Again

We need to get over the idea that using mobile devices are ubiquitous in the stores where most of our purchases take place. We need to get over the idea that people want to be bombarded with messages while they are in the store.



Dr. Stephen Needel

The longer I do marketing research, the more I realize there are no absolutes in our business. I find myself being less patient with those who proclaim absolutes, especially those who do so with a religious fervor that used to get people locked up. I’ve written in this space before (Meet the New Consumer) about our misconception of the “new consumer”, one who is overly reliant on digital technology and who researches everything or doesn’t dare make a purchase without consulting social media. If you want to hear the delivered word, attend an MRMW conference – the true believers gather regularly in a bacchanal of why everything must be mobile. The Omni-channel adherents hold similar covens, and I’d expect it to be just as orthodox.

For those of you who hang out on Greenbook’s blog site, LinkedIn’s consumer research and insights sites, or Retailwire (a great place to see what goes on in retail stores), you’ve heard the rants about why everything must be digital. The cry goes out, “Your shoppers are wired, why aren’t you!?” on a fairly regular basis. So I’d like to tell you why you shouldn’t care so much.

Michael Sciandra and Jeff Inman, both of the University of Pittsburgh, used the 2012 and 2013 POPAI studies to understand smartphone usage in grocery stores and mass-merchandisers1. Here are some of things they found about smartphone usage:

  • Only 8% of grocery shoppers and 19% of mass-merchandiser shoppers use their smartphones for a shopping-related activity.
  • Of those using a smartphone for shopping related activity, only 9% used it for something other than looking at their shopping list or calling for help with their decision in a grocery store. That’s less than 1% of shoppers checking out products or prices. 1 PERCENT!!! In mass-merchandisers, the proportion is higher, but then the products are different, not necessarily a grocery item.

More interesting though is the impact that using a smartphone for a shopping-related activity (as opposed to chatting with friends) has on shopping behavior:

  • Using your smartphone does not increase the number of unplanned purchases you make. So if you are one of those folk who think beacons are the wave of the future, you need some good data to back up your point. This study says it is not likely to be effective in driving incremental purchases.
  • Indeed, the study suggests that if you buy a lot of things in the store, as opposed to a quick trip, you actually reduce the number of unplanned purchases. Good for the shopper in keeping to a budget, bad for the retailer.
  • When you can’t find an item in the grocery store, using a smartphone does not increase substitute purchasing. If you can’t find an item in mass-merchandisers, you are more likely to buy a substitute, but only if you are using your device as a calculator. So shoppers are not resorting to the internet or friends or family members to figure out what to buy when our intended product isn’t there.
  • Shoppers using a smartphone do not buy as many of their planned purchases. Yes, that’s correct – you take your phone into the store and use it to aid in your shopping and you buy fewer things than you planned to buy!

While I have a number of methodological niggles with this study, and the authors do a good job of pointing them out themselves, these results should astound you. Marketing folk are all “digital this” and “mobile that” and the retailers are all wringing their hands trying to figure out what to do. Meanwhile, we get data that says nobody is actually using their phones in the stores for shopping and when they do, the retailer suffers and they don’t do a good job of shopping for themselves.

We need to get over the idea that using mobile devices are ubiquitous in the stores where most of our purchases take place. We need to get over the idea that people want to be bombarded with messages while they are in the store. And while this data doesn’t say you shouldn’t have a good web site or a digital strategy for your customers, it does say you shouldn’t encourage in-store mobile device usage.

1 Sciandra, M. and Inman, J. “Smart Phones, Bad Calls: In-Store Mobile Technology Use and Consumer Purchase Behavior”. MSI Report No. 14-116.

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4 responses to “In-Store Mobile Usage: Much Ado About Nothing – Again

  1. Thanks Steve for a very insightful article. Welcome to the wilderness! I am starting to think there are more doomsayers out there than I had thought, myself included of course. I have been consistently trying to get some objectivity around the whole social media and innovation blog scene for some time. Recently we had an article on innovation in Greenbook that was written from both a client side and provider side perspective saying that it was a hard sell trying to get innovations adopted because marketers are not being convinced of their efficacy relative to the potential risks. Now we have evidence that mobile in fact isn’t “always on” for retail marketing applications, in fact seems to be operating at such low levels. I don’t think anyone doubts the reach and relevance of social media communications, but findings like Steve Needel reports raise the question of how much communication, beyond a user’s personal space is actually utilized or processed? How much of a brand’s carefully crafted social media generates any response? I know a lot of work is being put into developing metrics in this area and some sort of consolidation on findings (not a few successful case studies!) would be useful. I found the results here frankly a major concern – could anyone anticipate that smartphone usage actually turns shoppers into more cautious and less frivolous consumers, less prone to unplanned offers?

  2. Chris – for those of us not of a certain age, like you and I, there was a time when you, the supplier, had to prove your worth to a client BEFORE they would buy your services. That seems to be gone in innovation selling – these days it’s more about sizzle than substance.

  3. Steve, excellent summary. As my dad always says “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” Or some such saying… The absurdity of some of the stats that get used to justify digital activities is indeed insane. And the silliness is that anyone can go, spend an afternoon in the aisle of a store and see that it is just not true. No need for a big expensive study. Just spend 3 hours in a store watching shoppers. We did a recent study in a category and observed 1000 people shopping. 3 people had a cell phone out while shopping the category. All three were talking on it.

    But, as with anything, it is also not accurate to say digital and mobile plays no role. Use of digital and mobile is increasing (hard not to increase when you see the tiny numbers of the recent past) and it will play a role in some shopping. We have also seen mobile enabled shopping, done well, can improve the experience (most apps/solutions aren’t doing it well) and can build the basket.

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