Monday, February 6, 2012

Shoppers Using Cell Phones for Product Research: A Discussion of Manners

Disclaimer: A prior article on the topic discussed in this post has been removed because the opinions expressed within do not necessarily represent my current opinions, and they do not represent opinions that were subjected to careful review. Just as fact-checking is extremely important, careful review of opinions can lead to important realizations that go a long way to creating a more informed and balanced discussion.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has revealed a trend towards customers' use of cell phones in stores for assistance in purchasing decisions.  Cell phone owners seem to be using store shelves as starting points for consumer research; these savvy consumers are searching for everything from product reviews to better prices online.  According to the study:

  • "38% of [adult] cell owners used their phone to call a friend while they were in a store for advice about a purchase they were considering making"
  • "24% of [adult] cell owners used their phone to look up reviews of a product online while they were in a store"
  • "25% of adult cell owners used their phones to look up the price of a product online while they were in a store, to see if they could get a better price somewhere else"

"Taken together, just over half (52%) of all adult cell owners used their phone for at least one of these three reasons over the holiday shopping season and one third (33%) used their phone specifically for online information while inside a physical store—either product reviews or pricing information."

Should brick-and-mortars be concerned?  Aside from offering competitive prices, is there anything they can do about this? A store could potentially have a barcode system specific to that store, which would cut down on people scanning barcodes, but aren't these consumers simply searching for product names?  (Honestly, I have no idea how people are using their cell phones.  That's what makes studies like this one so helpful.)  Though stores might not have a right to be concerned, they certainly have a reason:

"When asked what happened on the most recent occasion where they [those that used their cell phones 'as a tool for online price matching'] used their phone to look up the price online of a product they found in a store, these mobile price matchers [25% of all of those surveyed] point to a range of outcomes:

  • 37% decided to not purchase the product at all
  • 35% purchased the product at that store
  • 19% purchased the product online
  • 8% purchased the product at another store"

Calling a friend for advice on a purchasing decision is not an example of bad manners, in my opinion.  Store staff would be jumping to conclusions if they thought you were calling another store to ask about pricing.  You might be calling a friend, and perhaps you're seeking advice on what color dress to buy, and caring less or not at all about price.

Other examples of in-store cell phone use pose questions about manners in the digital age.  For example, if you know you never buy from brick-and-mortar stores, is it okay to go to them anyway, in order to browse and test products?  Though probably not a common scenario, it's a troubling one for physical retailers.  What if you go to a store, and you look at a product, and you might buy it at that retailer, but you might instead buy elsewhere?  You have a right to be at a store if there's a chance you'll buy merchandise there.  But should you be doing your research on your phone, in-store, where salespeople (and possibly the owner) can see you?  They know you're doing product research:  if you were texting, you'd be using both thumbs and tapping on your phone. And I'm not sure it's likely you're seeking information on what color dress to buy, though it is possible you're looking at some fashion resource to figure out what's "in."  On the other hand, you could be looking up competitors' prices online.  And that hurts the feelings of business owner Joe and maybe even those of his salespeople.  At least on some level.  I believe it was the grandmother of somebody I know who made a point of not rubbing it in business owner Joe's face when she had just bought something from Tom's business across the street (something that she could've gotten at Joe's).  She would conceal things with Tom's name on it and the like.  I think that's a very nice measure, and we should all try and treat the stores we shop at with that kind of respect.  In my opinion, you should try not to be seen doing your cell phone product look-ups.  You should go out to your car and then get out your phone (even if that means walking to your car).

As we get more and more accustomed to our modern conveniences, it inevitably becomes harder for us to think about things like manners, but we mustn't loose sight of them.  Treating each other with respect is countless times more valuable than buying presents.  And it might not hurt to recount a time when we would drive all the way home to turn on our desktop computers and do research on a product we had seen in the store.

UPDATE 2/16/12:  I wrote a follow-up to this post called Buy Where You Shop (a homage to Tim O'Reilly's essay of the same name), in which I detail some of the intricacies of the concepts I have introduced here.  For example, I present additional ways to avoid offending salespeople (and, no, checking whether they're there is not one of them, though I did consider it).  I know some will consider my opinions overbearing, and some will be defensive of their own habits, but I would hope that people consider every consequence that their digital devices are having on the feelings of others, and not just the obvious ones.  And for those of you who are wondering, yes, if I felt the need to look up something online while in a store, I would go out to my car to do it, or to the restroom.