People Like To Shop With Their Phone, But Buy? Maybe, Maybe Not …

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An article on the eMarketer.com site this week (“Mobile Shopping Doubles in 2010“) highlights a number of recent studies that all seem to support the same observation — people are increasingly using their mobile phones to shop for items they may be interested in purchasing. One study, by PriceGrabber.com completed in April of this year, showed a doubling of interest in shopping behavior on the mobile platform over the past year. As eMarketer comments:

“35% of US Web-enabled mobile phone owners said they had participated in some form of mobile shopping in the past year, such as browsing or researching but not necessarily purchasing products. That was up from 17% who said the same in 2009.”

When asked about plans for the upcoming 2 years, the interest in shopping via mobile looks as if it will continue to increase, with an additional 40% stating they will likely compare prices within the next two years, for example.

What I found most interesting about the stats, however, was the percentage of those surveyed who actually purchase something via the mobile route and — significantly — what they are actually purchasing. When you look at these figures, it still looks like mobile is going to be a tough nut to crack for the average retailer. For example, the PriceGrabber study showed that the percentage reporting actually making purchases via mobile is only up 3% from last year, to 13%. And, over the next two-year period, 38% more of those surveyed did indicate they may purchase items via the mobile platform. However, this still leaves almost half (49%) not seeing themselves actually purchasing items via mobile even as far as two years out.

Put this together with stats on the type of purchases being made on mobile, and there’s no cause for massive celebration by most retailers. The largest category of products is “digital content for my mobile phone (e.g., ringtones, apps, music, video clips)” with 61% of purchasers dipping into this category (up from 58% last year). Next is consumer electronics at 57% of those surveyed (up from 51%), followed by computers and related equipment (31%) and then books (42%). Clothing (34%) and jewelry/watches (16%) are the remaining categories, while the “other” catch-all category rounds it out at 15%. Some of these categories have even had a slight decline over 2009.

So, what is one to make of this? If you sit in a public place and observe those passing by or sitting having a coffee, you’ve got to notice that people are increasingly turning to smartphones as a means of occupying themselves in-between their various daily activities. Instead of sitting down at a table in Starbucks and checking out who is in the coffee shop, a person is more likely to sit down and immediately dig out their smartphone to check messages, make a call, play a game, mess around with an app, check their email, etc. Inevitably, that behavior is going to expand towards browsing around shopping and researching products one is interested in when one has some free time to kill between meetings, appointments, waiting for the bus, hanging out at the airport, or any of the myriad of places and times that we have a few minutes. Many of us feel more comfortable being engaged with something, and if we don’t have a friend or colleague to pass the time with, the smartphone is ready and ever-willing to keep us entertained. For those of us who may be a little shy, it’s a great way to avoid the feeling that everyone is looking at you and wondering why you have no friends :)

But to take the next step and actually make a purchase? Not so easy. Yes, apps and ringtones are quick and easy purchases, with a slick system already set up to make it painless to purchase and obtain an instant fix. Other items, however, require laborious browsing of a website that may not have been optimally configured for the mobile experience, may not have a great shopping cart setup, may be clumsy for actual payment, and certainly is a deferred benefit, as you have to wait for the physical item to be shipped to you.

No wonder those who do buy from the mobile route are mostly buying the type of things that are designed and geared toward the mobile experience itself. But, if you cast your thoughts back in time, you will recall that it took a number of years for computer users in general to warm up to the buying experience of the Internet, and even today, the tendency is to browse and research online, but buy offline. Online is gradually eating into that dominance however, and I do believe that mobile will also make that transition. It will likely take years, but it will happen, especially as tablets such as the iPad gain market share and offer a more informative/”larger” shopping experience on a screen that can show more detail of certain types of products. The PriceGrabber.com/eMarketer data is an interesting look at the past, present, and future of mobile shopping and purchasing — it will be fun to see how it pans out in real-time.

About the Author

Frances Krug has worked in market research since graduating from UCLA with an MA and CPhil in Latin American history. As an editor and online content provider for the last 7 years, she currently is Associate Editor at iNET Interactive, where she also directs Search Marketing Standard's email marketing program.

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