Three Unexpected Side-Effects of Smartphones on Shopping

Phone-induced shopping shifts include rejected salespeople & bumper car browsing

Posted Aug 12, 2013

When shoppers met the smartphone it was love at first sight. Consumers quickly learned they could do things like check blue book prices from car dealerships; use QR codes to see if a dress they were trying on in one store was being sold for less at another store nearby (or online); or reorder cleaning products while waiting for the bus. Now that more than half of Americans have smartphones the impact of this relationships on retail is notable.

"Showrooming" is the offspring that’s grabbed the most attention of this union. “Showrooming” is when shoppers touch and feel merchandise in stores and then consult their smartphones to compare prices and potentially order it for less online. But there have been other consequences. Here are three unexpected ways the world of retail has been influenced by shoppers’ love affair with their smartphones.

1. Shoppers are making fewer impulse purchases at the cash register. Single sale copies of magazines, largely purchased while waiting in line at the grocery store, are down 8.2% from last year. Sales of gum have taken a hit too, they declined 5.5% last year. Evidently instead of amusing ourselves examining new gum flavors or keeping tabs on Jennifer Aniston, we’re checking our emails or playing Angry Birds.

2. The marketplace has become a collision course. Brett has been a weekly regular at San Francisco’s popular Saturday morning farmers market since it opened. Not anymore. “It’s always been crowded but now it’s impossible. Everyone’s looking down at their phone, blocking passageways, walking right into you sometimes. It’s rude.” Julie feels the same way about shopping at Ross. “I was trying to make my way around this rack and there’s this girl just texting away, oblivious.” It’s a new topic that’s come up in several recent interviews I’ve conducted with consumers - fellow shoppers are distracted by their cellphones. Salespeople agree. According to Sara, who preferred not to name the department store where she works as a sales associate, “my customers are always on their phones. Not necessarily showrooming but they’re not just shopping either, they’re multi-tasking.”

3. Shoppers like technology more than salespeople. A study by Accenture found that 73% of shoppers with smartphones would rather consult their phone than a salesperson. Patty is one of them, “it’s faster,” she says. It’s a tough contest to win, consumers love their cellphones and expect fast answers. Some retailers, such as Nordstrom, have armed employees with technology to check inventories and order for their customers. And Apple, no doubt understanding the consumer’s preference for visual aids, has installed information loaded iPads next to their merchandise. Tony, a young Apple fan, says that he likes to figure things out for himself, “I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to see how things work. I like the lists that compare product specs and then I can see it in action.” Other retailers such as Aeropostale are testing iPad kiosks where shoppers can do things like vote on the music played in the store and email outfits ideas to their friends.

According to a recent study by Pew Internet, 44% of Americans sleep with their cellphones, 67% find themselves checking their phones for messages even if they haven’t noticed a ring, and 29% of cellphone owners describe their cellphone as “something they can’t imagine living without.” Given the intensity of this love affair, these changes in how we shop are only the beginning.