Shopping While Texting: Distracted Shopping, Impulse Buys, and Retail Growth

Shopping While Texting: Distracted Shopping, Impulse Buys, and Retail Growth

Don’t text and shop — or you may end up spending more than you bargained for.

Much like you would never want to be distracted while operating a motor vehicle, a sidetracked consumer can be equally accident-prone — but with their wallet. Distraction inherently breeds risk. A reduced ability to devote to the focal task at hand (say, purchasing the lemons tonight’s recipe requires… or selecting just the one pair of shoes you need for vacation) lends itself to the likelihood that plans will go awry.

Multi-tasking while texting, talking, or checking social media on mobile phones theoretically buys back time. And time is money. But shopper beware: this deal comes with an extra price tag attached — and it can be costly.

Distractions While Shopping Lead to Impulse Buys

Marketers map out a variety of goals they want customers to accomplish as they lead them through the full funnel experience of their customer journey. Naturally, these include accepting the call to action of a planned purchase — as well as digesting the messaging of advertisements (paid/print/digital/social), signing up for free trials/offers/subscriber lists, and nurturing and building loyal relationships so customers return for cyclical journeys and become advocates (in other words, becoming little marketing engines of their own via reviews, blogs, and personal recommendations in their own social circles).

A distraction along this well-thought out journey can either disrupt the journey entirely — or lead to a nice reward. At least 92% of Americans own a mobile phone… and that statistic only rises as we winnow age demographics to younger generations.

We talk and text a lot. Some statistics cite five hours per 24 hour window — on average. And when we’re distracted while shopping, we’re more likely to make purchases we don’t need.

  • 77% of shoppers say they’ve made a spontaneous impulse purchase in the past three months
  • 79% of impulse buys still take place in physical retail stores. 

Clearly, cell phones are a key distraction in our daily lives that can tip the odds in a retailer’s favor.

A Case of "Possession Obsession"

“Possession Obsession” isn’t just a wiggly little Hall & Oates song. Buyer compulsion is real — and for business owners, it can be spectacular. “It's the cookies and the ice cream and spur-of-the-moment impulse decisions that we need to try to keep under control. And those are the ones that tend to happen more often when people are distracted by their phones,” said Jeffrey Inman, a marketing professor at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

But it’s not just cookies and ice cream that qualify as impulse buys — we’re all hard-wired into cravings. As Hall & Oates croons, “gimme, gimme, gimme...”

Retail’s the paradise of many temptations and material flights of fancy. Whatever the excuse shoppers allow themselves, the end result is the same: a soaring credit card bill.

Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind", agrees. “When we do other things, we're not really paying attention to how much money we're spending, and therefore, we're much more susceptible to mistakes and impulse purchases.”

But Retailer Beware: Distractions Lead to Impulse Buys Only Some of the Time

While distractions can snowball into extra purchases, this effect hinges on the reason behind the usage.

  • 9% of those who use their phones for purposes unrelated to shopping (ie texting, social media) are more likely to make unintended purchases.
  • 13% of those who use their phones in a shopping-related manner spent less money on unplanned items.

When consumers are focused on their task at hand, like entering a store with a freshly texted promo (in-store on-demand coupons see redemption rates of 70-80%), the buyer is less likely to leave the store with more than they expected.

Capitalize on the Subtle Art of Encouraging Impulse Buys By Drawing Attention to Impulse Products

Unplanned purchases help brick-and-mortar stores level the eCommerce home field advantage. Either way, texting is a net positive for retailers. Consider other creative techniques to boost impulse sales:

  • Offer free WiFi in stores and charging ports in carts
  • Display impulse items near high-demand products
  • Place lower-priced impulse buys near checkout or fitting rooms: anywhere that customers are likely to congregate
  • Take advantage of lighting to (literally) shine a beam on quick grab items
  • Attract customers with attention-grabbing display colors (like red or neon)
  • Build attention-grabbing signage around the impulse displays
  • Present product samples or demos

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