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Put your phone down at the store. It’s costing you money

If you talk or text while shopping for groceries or clothes, chances are good that it’s leading you to spend money that you don’t have.

Put your phone down at the store. It’s costing you money
[Photos: frankie cordoba/Unsplash, FTiare/iStock]

It’s tempting to multitask while shopping for groceries–why not knock out a call to Mom, or check that work email, while perusing the cereal aisle? But according to new research out of Fairfield University published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, you’re probably better off abstaining from using your phone at all. Because people who shop while on their phone buy more of those impulse items that were never on their list in the first place.

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For the study, the team analyzed data from 2,600 shoppers from across the United States going to mass merchandiser stores–which could be a grocery store like Kroger, retailer like Target, or warehouse like Costco. The shoppers were interviewed on their way in, asking what they intended to buy. And then they were interviewed again on their way out, asking what they actually bought in addition to if, and how, they used their phone.

Then all of the data was categorized. If shoppers used their phone for listening to a podcast or chatting with someone else, it was deemed “shopping unrelated.” If they were digging up coupon codes or checking a retailer’s website, it was deemed “shopping related.”

Long story short, those who used their phone in shopping unrelated ways were 9% more likely to buy items that they had never intended to buy when going to the store. And the impulse items they purchased tended to be more hedonistic (think chocolate candy, snacks, electronics, and toys)–rather than practical–in nature. These findings conform with longstanding consumer research, which finds that when people are overtaxed mentally, they tend to lose self-control.

“It appears that many consumers overlook or tend to discount some of the negative effects of engaging in casual conversations, text messaging, or surfing social media sites while shopping. We want consumers to recognize that there does appear to be some negative repercussions to these decisions, especially when it comes to unplanned purchasing and missing planned items,” says Michael Sciandra, the assistant professor at Fairfield University who led the study. “Additionally, we also want those consumers who are most attached to their phones to realize that they might be the most at risk for some of these negative outcomes.”

One twist, however, was that shoppers who used their phone only for shopping-related tasks–like digital coupon cutting or a digital list–were able to keep impulse buys in check. However, if they switched from shopping tasks on their phone to unrelated tasks, they fell back into the pitfalls of casual phone use.

“This suggests that in-store mobile phone use is a double-edged sword for consumers, depending on how the phone is used,” says Sciandra. “I think this might be one of the potential benefits to retailers when it comes to mobile coupon apps. While consumers may initially be focusing on using their phones in a shopping-related manner, it is likely that many of us will switch over to shopping-unrelated uses such as checking emails, making phone calls, or browsing social media sites once the phone is out of our pocket or purse.” As soon as we lose the mental discipline of how we’re using our phones, we might lose spending discipline as well.

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So what should you do? By all means, if you have more expendable income than time, perhaps using your phone for socializing while shopping is a good way to multitask. But for those of us on a budget, Sciandra suggests that holstering your phone and using a good old-fashioned paper shopping list may be the best option to keep purchases in check. Because those massage chairs at Costco are expensive.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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