Milk, broccoli, and wait, is that your brother texting back? When you’re at the supermarket, having a whole text volley with him could make you fill your cart with all kinds of things you hadn’t planned on getting. And it’s not gonna be extra kale.
When researchers looked at what people intended to buy and what they did, they saw that people who used their phones for “shopping-unrelated” tasks—like talking to someone, checking email, switching to a different playlist, or playing a game—bought significantly more unplanned items than people who didn’t use their phones while shopping. And those items tended to be “hedonic” products—those that “tend to be more decadent, excessive, or impractical,” says study co-author Michael R. Sciandra, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. So basically, not kale.
If you only use your phone for shopping-related activities like calculating prices and bringing up coupons, you’re not as likely to deviate from your list. Both shopping decision making and using your phone “compete for the same pool of cognitive resources,” according to the study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, so you’re just not going to be great at doing both at once.
At the same time you’re getting more spacey as you shop, stores are getting smarter. They may present themselves as “technology friendly” or highlight the availability of WiFi, to keep you on your phone. To capitalize on distractability, marketers could even include unrelated messages and info in mobile shopping apps to intentionally distract you, according to the study, done by researchers at Fairfield University, University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Oxford. Yet consumers overwhelmingly say that their phones don’t affect them while shopping. “We hope consumers begin to recognize some of the drawbacks to unrelated mobile phone use in store environments,” Sciandra says. And the more attached to your phone you are, the worse the effects. (By the way, heavy phone users not only bought more things they hadn’t planned to buy; they also forgot more products they’d wanted to purchase.)
That doesn’t mean you should never keep your shopping list on your phone. “If you are someone who can focus only on the list and nothing else, then I don’t think people necessarily need to curb this practice,” Sciandra says. But if you’re in the middle of a text volley about, say, what time you’ll run in the morning and you zip over to the weather app to see how warm it will be, which reminds you to check something else, which reminds you to do something else… Well, at least finish all that before you step inside.