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Why People Are More Likely to Buy Frivolous Things on Their Smartphones

By understanding your customers' mindset and intent, ecommerce businesses can tailor their sites to accommodate the needs of different customer segments.

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In less than a decade, mobile has become ingrained into nearly every aspect of our lives. We’re now dependent on our smartphones, with the average mobile phone user checking their device 150 times a day. And this device addiction extends beyond our personal lives. In fact, research claims that for online shopping, smartphones are the dominant method of connection to the web for millennials, with 89 percent of them using the devices to connect vs. 75 percent who use laptops, 45 percent tablets and 37 percent desktop computers.


When it comes to what we’re buying it also seems that device really does matter. According to research from the university of British Columbia, which sheds new light into and touchscreen technology, we’re more likely to indulge in guilty pleasures when shopping online with a touchscreen vs. a desktop computer.

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So what is it about smartphones that makes us feel like this, and why isn’t the same true when we use desktops?

It’s all about emotion.

It all comes down to the different emotions we feel towards our devices and what these emotions encourage us to do. The more you use your phone, satisfying your hungry neurons with the positive of constant connectivity, the more you wonder how you ever lived without it. The phone has come to represent our portal into the social world, signifying connectivity to all that is happening outside and around us. It sits in our pockets or our purses, sending and receiving signals and acting as a crucial link that anchors and moors us via its messages, social networks and constant texts. Desktops, however, are used in “browsing mode” rather than “connection mode,” for more personal and solitary tasks. 

It also comes down to behavior. The adage “old habits die hard” has a neurological basis. Behaviors turn into habits when they become automatic. This is why we lock our doors without thinking about it or find ourselves brushing our teeth without remembering that we walked into the bathroom. When you perform a specific behavior regularly, its pattern becomes etched in your neural pathways.

Smartphones are designed to get us to check them repeatedly -- new emails, text messages and updates beckon throughout the day, urging us to constantly pull the device out of our pocket. This behavior -- constant checking -- quickly becomes habit.

There’s also a feedback loop at play with our smartphones. When a certain behavior makes you feel good, you will return to it again and again. So, if playing a game on your tends to relax you when you feel stressed, then the pleasure or comfort brought on by the game encourages repetitive behavior.

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This is exactly the same model that websites such as Buzzfeed tap into to keep users engaged. Visitors to Buzzfeed are generally looking for amusement or a break. Buzzfeed is able to keep the audience engaged by displaying content linked through casual associations at the bottom of each article, leading visitors to jump from one article to the next.

Smartphones tap into behavior to deliver superior digital experiences.

This same theory explains why we’re more likely to purchase frivolous things on our smartphones. Our consumer culture puts temptation at our fingertips and makes the purchase decision as simple as the click of a button, leaving little time for us to stop and consider the consequences. Impulse buyers are more likely to be social and status-conscious, behavior which is magnified by our smartphones. Buying something on a whim also triggers the same positive feedback loop as checking our smartphones. Reinforcing our frivolous purchase as a positive action, making us more likely to do it again.

For retailers, these facts can be harnessed to build customer relationships and positively impact the bottom line. By understanding your customers’ mindset and intent, ecommerce businesses can tailor their sites to accommodate the needs of different customer segments. This starts by listening to your customers’ digital body language and responding accordingly. Digital body language is a combination of all the digital gestures and micro-signals made by customers, from which we can identify patterns and anomalies to infer behavior. For example, a determined customer doesn’t want distractions, so remove things such as pop-ups and save them for customers who are exploring.

By remembering that smartphones and desktops trigger different behaviors, retailers can tailor their experience on each device to the particular mindset it activates and craft exceptional cross-browser experiences that helps build customer loyalty and stickiness -- the ultimate goal for any business!

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