Analysis: Smartphone distraction has an effect on how the human brain works when we are shopping
Are you constantly checking your phone when you’re out and about? Do you have trouble resisting the lure of ever more screen time? If so, be careful when you go grocery shopping – as your phone may be costing you more than you think.
A recent study suggests that grocery shoppers who use their phones in the supermarket end up spending, on average, 41% more than those who don’t. This may sound counter intuitive. Previously, many bricks-and-mortar retailers have regarded shoppers’ smartphones as a distraction – or worse. They worried that customers who paid attention to their phones spent less time looking at enticing product displays in the store, or might use their phones to search for better deals online.
To find out if these fears were justified (specifically when people go grocery shopping) a team of researchers conducted an experiment. We placed special eye-tracking glasses on more than 400 shoppers, who then went about their shopping as usual.
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The glasses allowed us to see precisely what the shoppers were doing when they were shopping – and what they looked at. Some of the participants were encouraged to use their mobile phones, while some were asked to put them away for the duration of their shopping trip.
It turned out that the effect is ultimately the opposite of what we might have thought. Shoppers who checked their phone while shopping spent on average 41% more at the till – and those people who used their phones the most also tended to spend the most money.
Inside a shoppers’ mind
The reason for this lies in the way the human brain works when we are shopping – and the vast amount of choices on offer.
Even a small grocery store may keep 10,000 unique products in stock, while large supermarkets stock many times that. It is impossible for the human mind to consciously process and choose between all these available items. We simply cannot cope with all these decisions, which means our brains are trying to simplify the complexity of a grocery store in different ways.
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One way is to activate a kind of internal autopilot, which acts as a kind of shopping script, prescribing what we do and see in the store. Essentially, this means that most shoppers usually go to the shelves and sections they always go to, and buy the same products repeatedly.
Say, for example, that you regularly buy milk, chicken and bananas. Your inner autopilot will lead you between the points in the store where you know these items belong.
Similarly, if you are cooking food for a weekday dinner, you may have an inner script of what products should be in that. Products that are not part of that script are most often filtered away by your brain as irrelevant information.
If you are conscious of sticking to your shopping plan and budget, then it may be best to keep your phone in your bag or pocket
After all, why would you be interested in looking at baking products when you are planning a quick shop for a stir fry, before getting home after a long day at work? All these products we do not consciously see do not stand a chance of getting into the shopping basket. The harsh fact is that shoppers are very habitual creatures – most of us vary our grocery purchases between fewer than 150 products a year.
But something different happens when we pick up our phones. Whether it’s to make a call, send a text message, check social media or browse holiday destinations, our minds are forced to switch our very limited attention capacity from the shopping task to the phone.
As attention is distracted, the way shoppers behave in the store drastically changes. They suddenly walk more slowly and in unpredictable patterns, wandering along the aisles.
They find themselves spending more time in the store, and becoming more receptive to looking at a wider assortment of products as the autopilot has been interrupted. This means they (you) are less likely to filter off information regarding products outside the normal script and more like to be inspired to buy more of them.
In essence, shoppers who look at their phones spend more time in the store, look at more products, and buy more things. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as you may be reminded to buy products that are needed at home that were not on your mental shopping list – or you may be inspired to try a new ingredient.
But if you are conscious of sticking to your shopping plan and budget, then it may be best to keep your phone in your bag or pocket. Remember that an online friendly store – with free wi-fi or smartphone docking stations on trolley handles – may simply be landing you with a bigger shopping bill.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ