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It’s a Good Thing That Shopping on Your Phone Is the Worst

You’re primed to make bad decisions when you shop on the go

Credit: ArisSu/Getty Images

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

There is no worse way to shop than on your smartphone.

I almost never do it, and I’m surprised that so many others do. Navigating online shops is a chore. Images rarely zoom or scroll correctly. It’s hard to compare one item to another. Large arrow icons block out parts of clothing or furniture, if they appear at all. Checkout functions aren’t well-suited to touch screens either; typing your address and credit card number into a new shop is miserable.

There are a number of ways user experience designers and hardware developers could make all of this a lot easier. But there’s a benefit to all these annoying barriers. Research shows we’re likely to make impulse purchases on our phones — things that are unnecessary and probably a waste of money. If you can’t even get the mobile site to work for whatever cute little brand you’re looking to drop a couple of hundred dollars on, you probably just saved some dough that’s better spent elsewhere.

According to research on consumers’ mobile shopping behavior, there are two types of purchases people tend to make on their mobile devices: “hedonic purchases” and “habitual purchases.” A hedonic purchase could be a pair of stylish shoes that you buy on a whim from an Instagram ad — something you want very much, not something that you need.

A habitual purchase is the sort of product a consumer buys regularly, like house supplies or beauty products, that are a part of the person’s regimen already. I talked to a number of acquaintances about their mobile shopping habits for this piece, and almost all of them told me that the bulk of their mobile purchases fell into one of the two categories, with items ranging from impulse eBay and Instagram purchases to, more often, pet and office supplies.

“I find that customers are more likely to buy products that they are already familiar with when they have to rely on their smartphones to make these purchases,” such as staple products or other items that the consumer doesn’t need to think about too much before buying, says Rebecca Wang, an assistant professor of marketing at Lehigh University and a research affiliate at Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center. “Smartphones… are more of a habit-reinforcement tool. They are with consumers all the time but compared to PCs, they don’t lend themselves to searches and learning as efficiently.”

A less than ideal mobile shopping experience on

Ying Zhu, an assistant professor of management at the University of British Columbia, has studied how consumers differentiate their purchases depending on the device. In her 2017 research, she found hedonic purchases to be the most common purchases made on mobile devices, while utilitarian purchases that require more thought and comparison — the most efficient air purifier say — are more likely to be desktop buys.

We can be saved from such hedonic purchases — saved from ourselves, really — when confronted with a mobile checkout so inconsistent and glitchy that it’s unclear if the order even went through.

“It’s always such a pain,” a friend told me last week when I asked her about her experiences with online shopping. “I tried to buy this sweater literally seven times and it wouldn’t go through despite me having the proper card info each time.” Eventually, she contacted customer service, and when they didn’t get back to her within 24 hours, my friend ditched the product. It wasn’t worth all the work to actually get the sweater.

If I see I’m going to be paying $8.99 to ship a $35 bra, I’m out. I become a statistic: a cart abandoner.

My friend’s frustrating experience is hardly unusual. Cart abandonment — when a customer puts items in their online shopping cart, only to quit without following through on the purchase — is high across all digital shopping methods, but it’s highest on mobile. According to industry research from 2018, nearly 86% of shoppers ultimately abandon their carts on a mobile device, compared to 73% on a desktop.

There are two main reasons why this happens, according to Wang: operations-related and consumer-related.

On the operations side, if customers are forced to create an account to check out, or if the checkout process is otherwise clumsy and cumbersome, customers will likely walk away from the cart. Alternatively, consumers may have anxiety about making a purchase, question the validity and trustworthiness of the product, lack knowledge about the return process, or feel frustrated and doubtful about pricing and shipping costs.

I’m absolutely not going to make a purchase if I don’t know if I have free shipping and returns, and when I’m on my phone, that information may not be apparent until I’m halfway through the already-annoying checkout process, if at all. If I see I’m going to be paying $8.99 to ship a $35 bra, I’m out. I become a statistic: a cart abandoner.

And then there’s a hardware issue. My phone is too small to get a really good look at what I’m buying. The inability to compare products on my smartphone is the single biggest reason why I don’t generally buy things on mobile. If I need to buy a pair of jeans, I’m not going to buy them on a whim; I have to compare them to at least several others before clicking “complete order.” How stretchy is the denim? How long is the inseam? Do the reviews delve into what kind of body type fits into the jeans best? Are they true to size? And how much do they cost?

It’s a lot to consider, far too much to be able to manage on my iPhone screen, with its awkward tab navigation and relatively small size. Hence, the two purchases I’m most likely to make, hedonic and habitual buys, are the ones that require the least amount of research.

Zhu, however, brings that reasoning one step further. Different devices may encourage different types of thinking. Smartphones, she says, “enhance your experiential thinking mode. You’ll be drawn towards hedonic products like ice cream and chocolate.” But because of how we typically use desktop computers — it’s where we do much of our day-to-day work — we approach their use in a “rational” thinking mode. And when that’s the case, you’re more capable of asking questions and making comparisons.

This all could change in the future, and likely will. Zhu notes that as we grow more and more dependent on mobile, we could end up transitioning our rational thinking from desktop to mobile out of necessity. We’ll be doing more work and completing more tasks on our phones, so that mode of thought will follow. Or we could lose access to that rational thinking mode, making it harder for us to make thoughtful purchases that require more than a split-second decision.

In other words, we’ll be dumber about things we need to think about before buying. Once buying a car on our phones becomes commonplace, say, we might indulge in the impulse Range Rover rather than comparing it to a Toyota RAV4 and carefully deciding between the two. “You pretty much start to use your heuristic rule of thumb on the smartphone,” says Zhu. “It will dominate all the decisions we make and that will have long-term consequences.”

In the meantime, if online retailers want to reduce their mobile cart abandonment rates, they can do a few things. Brands should focus on improving their search, navigation, and image viewing functions to make it easier for customers to actually find what they’re looking for. Augmented reality — such as Ikea’s app, which allows you to visualize a product in your own home — could become more popular and help mitigate the guessing game inherent in ordering something before you’ve seen it. Foldable phones, by virtue of their screen size, could make thoughtful, comparative shopping easier — if they ever actually end up on the market. And Instagram is currently in the process of adding in-app shopping, which will certainly make it easier to indulge in hedonic purchases, though it will do little for consumers hoping to research and purchase specific products.

As for me? Well, I’m going to try to get out of the house more and hit up actual stores. I spend enough time gazing into the abyss of my screens as it is.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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