Study: Shopping on a cellphone is connected to impulsive buys, says UBCO researcher

Despite the prevalence of touchscreen technology, how touchscreens impact the behaviour of consumers is a relatively new area of research. According to a study led by UBCO’s Dr. Ying Zhu, it turns out that those who use devices with touchscreens for online shopping spend more impulsively than subjects with access to only desktop computers.

Data were collected from university students over three lab experiments.

In each experiment, those participating were asked to choose between a product that yielded pleasure, categorized as hedonic, such as a gift card to a restaurant; and another considered to be practical and utilitarian, like a gift card to a grocery store.

The results showed that desktop users displayed greater levels of rationality than touchscreen users.

To rank the users on their rationality, Zhu used a scale devised by Hoffman and Novak. Commonly used in marketing research, it measures the extent to which people think rationally versus experientially to make decisions. The former refers to logical and analytical skills, and the latter to the use of intuition and feelings.

Participants were asked to respond to questions during the experiment, and their responses demonstrated that touchscreen users had more characteristics of experiential thinking than desktop users.

This study focused only on students, but other demographics — like seniors — are predicted to respond to touchscreens in a similar way.

“If [members of] the older population don’t have exposure to touchscreen devices, and they do everything on a computer, then you can see a strong effect [when] they’re on a touchscreen,” Zhu said.

The reason for this is because unfamiliarity and novelty may lead to greater excitement and, consequently, higher levels of experiential thinking. Likewise, students who rarely use desktop computers may experience a spike in rational thinking when exposed to them because they suggest work and professionalism.

At the same time, since this study was conducted using only smartphones, predictions are uncertain when extrapolating data to other touchscreen devices such as tablets.

“People use it for both work and pleasure, so the effect may either go away or [be amplified],” Zhu explained. The latter prediction results from looking at online shopping traffic, which shows that more people make purchases through tablets than phones.

In this experiment, Zhu studied students’ decisions in a controlled environment, in a short span of time. However, she is also interested in longer-term consequences of touchscreen devices.

When asked if social media or other apps not related to shopping may influence people’s spending habits, she responded, “When you’re in the experiential [thinking] mode, you’re thinking about experiences, and Facebook is more experience-based. ... I don’t have data, but based on my gut feeling, Facebook may even amplify the effects.”

The implications for students are clear. “If you want to stick to your budget and not overspend, but you’re thinking about [something pleasurable], don’t look at the product on your phone,” Zhu advised.

It may be easy to search up products online, but using a touchscreen device will enable experiential thinking and make it more difficult to resist impulsive shopping.

Due to the relatively recent introduction of smart products, it is important to understand how touchscreen products affect and alter our everyday lives.

In the future, Zhu plans to examine how touchscreens impact consumers’ judgement. Her current research examines what people purchase, but the next step is to look into how they arrive at the final product in terms of mapping out decision making step by step.