Smart Phones, Bad Calls? In-store Mobile Technology Use and Consumer Purchase Behavior

Michael R. Sciandra and J. Jeffrey Inman, 2014, 14-116

Mobile technologies have been praised for helping consumers make quicker and better decisions, and the prevalence of shopping apps and decision aids suggests that use of mobile devices has beneficial effects. Yet research also suggests that use of new technologies in retail environments may handicap a shopper’s ability to focus and affect their interactions with in-store stimuli.

In this report, Michael Sciandra and J. Jeffrey Inman investigate the association between in-store mobile technology use and consumer purchase behaviors. Across two field studies conducted in grocery stores and mass merchandisers, they demonstrate that in-store mobile use is associated with a number of important consumer behaviors, including purchasing more unplanned items, failing to purchase more planned items, and altering substitute purchases. Among their findings:

  • Shoppers using their phones for private conversations or text messages made more unplanned purchases compared to shoppers not using their phones.
  • Shoppers using their devices as a calculator made more substitute item purchases when compared to shoppers not using devices.
  • Shoppers using their devices for private conversation or as a calculator failed to purchase more planned items when compared to shoppers not using mobile devices.

In addition, in an online experiment, the authors show that the intensity and duration of mobile device use negatively impacts shoppers’ ability to recall in-store stimuli and their overall shopping accuracy.

Managerial implications

These results suggest that retailers may be able to increase basket size by actively encouraging shoppers to use their mobile devices while shopping, for example, by highlighting the availability of Wi-Fi throughout the store and promoting the shopping environment as “technology friendly.” Similarly, retailers might entice shoppers to use their mobile devices via subtle advertisements or signage reminding shoppers that it is smart to multi-task or catch up on conversations (both talking and texting).

However, their results also suggest that managers need to be careful when it comes to in-store mobile device use. For example, both shopping-unrelated and -related mobile use increases planned but not purchased items. In other words, using a mobile device potentially results in consumers leaving more planned items on the shelf and spending less overall. In particular, it appears that individuals using their devices for casual conversation are the most prone to failing to make planned purchases.

Their results also indicate that shopping-unrelated mobile device use can have substantial impact on recall of in-store displays and environmental stimuli. The attentional limits imposed by mobile devices may therefore impede retailers’ attempts to communicate in-store with shoppers and limit the effectiveness of promotional materials meant to stimulate additional purchases.  

Overall, their study demonstrates that retailers must be aware of the negative implications associated with mobile device use and must weigh the advantages and disadvantages associated with the promotion of in-store mobile app use.

Michael R. Sciandra is a doctoral candidate and J. Jeffrey Inman is Albert Wesley Frey Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty, both at the Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh.


The authors thank MSI for their support of this research.

Related links

Shop Till You Drop: Contemporary Issues in Shopper Insights
J. Jeffrey Inman (2014) [Video]

Should Retailers Worry about In-Store Mobile Use? (2013) [Article]


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