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Couponing and saving money has never been quite so easy. You don’t need to clip coupons or plan your grocery list before you shop if you don’t want to – you can use your phone to clip digital coupons, search for sales and compare prices right in the store.

But all that reliance on your phone could come at a price – you may not end up saving as much as you had hoped, and you might not even buy everything you had planned.

That warning comes in a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, entitled “Smart phones, bad calls? The influence of consumer mobile phone use, distraction, and phone dependence on adherence to shopping plans”.

The authors examine the extent to which using our phones in the grocery aisle is helpful, and when it becomes a distraction.

With “93% of consumers admitting to using their phones while out shopping,” the study notes that “almost half of all in-store mobile phone use is unrelated to the shopping task”, such as talking on the phone, texting, emailing, browsing the internet or playing games. The researchers hypothesized that this form of in-store multitasking could impact shoppers’ ability to accurately manage their shopping trip.

“Consumers do not appear to recognize any drawbacks to using mobile phones in store environments,” they found. But the researchers discovered that “shopping-unrelated mobile phone use” is associated with an increase in unplanned purchases, and puts shoppers at greater risk of forgetting items on their shopping list.

They recruited shoppers to participate in simulated shopping trips, to see how they shopped in three different situations – consulting their phone only for shopping-related activities, using their phone for other purposes while shopping, and not accessing their phone at all. It turned out that the more that shoppers used their phone, and the more they used it for shopping-unrelated purposes, the more likely they were to get distracted from their shopping trip, and either grab items they hadn’t planned on buying, or forget items they had planned to buy.

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So allowing yourself to get distracted by your phone while you shop clearly isn’t beneficial to you. But what does it mean for the stores where you shop? Should they be promoting their apps, encouraging you to use their free Wi-Fi and sending you coupon alerts as you shop, if it means they’re just going to mess you up while you’re trying to get your shopping done? Or is messing you up and making you buy more than you had planned, exactly what they want to be doing?

It’s “a double-edged sword,” the researchers write. Your phone can prevent you from making planned purchases just as easily as it can cause you to make unplanned purchases. So whether stores should encourage you to use your phone while you shop, depends on what kind of shopper you are.

Stores that don’t have a loyal customer base should be careful about distracting shoppers. “Retailers may suffer losses when encouraging mobile use, since shoppers are likely to go elsewhere to purchase planned items mismanaged during the initial shopping trip,” the study states.

But for stores with a loyal customer base, distracting shoppers may be just what the store wants to do. “Not only are retailers maximizing unplanned purchasing,” the study notes, but “if a shopper misses or forgets an item, this may necessitate a second shopping trip” to the same store.

So the study makes some insidious suggestions. “Marketers may incorporate unrelated messages and information into mobile shopping apps, including short news updates, weather alerts, or general shopping information. This may distract shoppers from the focal shopping trip and lead to deviations from their shopping plans,” leading to “positive implications for retailers’ bottom lines”.

And you thought your phone was making you a better shopper, or at least just helping you to pass the time in the store.

“As mobile technologies continue to grow in popularity, it is critical that consumers and marketers understand the impact these technologies have on consumer behaviors,” the researchers conclude. So the next time you go grocery shopping, you might want to stay focused on the task at hand – and put away the phone. Otherwise, by the time you look up from your screen, you may find yourself wondering where all of your money went.

Image source: Quotient Technology

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