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Beware of overspending when shopping on your smartphone

Kelly Dilworth

Shopping on your smartphone may be more convenient than visiting a brick-and-mortar retailer, but it could also cause you to spend more than you would otherwise, according to a new study published in the Journal of Retailing.

The study found that consumers who shop for groceries on their smartphones tend to shop more frequently once they become accustomed to using their phones for everyday purchases. They also tend to buy more overall.

Beware of overspending when shopping on your smartphone

“Mobile devices provide convenience, which causes increased spending,” wrote study authors Rebecca Jen-Hui Wang, Edward C. Malthouse and Lakshman Krishnamurthi in the report. Rather than drive to a brick-and-mortar store or go to a fixed-in-place computer, “customers can easily pull out their mobile devices to browse or shop at a retailer using just one finger.”

Smartphones also make it easier — and thus more tempting — to buy more because they’re always on and connected, write the authors. If you’re contemplating a purchase, you can simply whip out your phone and click “buy” within minutes without having to wait until you’re near a store or computer. You can also return to a mobile store over and over again, the authors write, making it more likely you’ll eventually decide to buy.

In addition, shopping on your smartphone could alter the types of products you decide to purchase, the study found, causing you to spend more than you would have otherwise. For example, consumers who shop for groceries on their smartphones tend to opt for more familiar brands and products, passing up the opportunity to buy products that provide more bang for the buck.

The authors theorize that smartphones’ relatively small screens limit the amount of time people are willing to spend researching a product. Rather than take the time to think through a particular purchase, consumers shopping with a smartphone may just go with the brand they know. “When facing time or resource pressure, customers tend to act habitually,” the authors write. They’re also more likely to forget about other possibilities once they repeatedly buy from the same brand. “As customers become dependent on their habits, they rely on automatic thinking and cease to consider alternatives.”

The study builds on previous research that found people tend to buy more heavily when using credit cards rather than cash. Because charging a purchase is a step removed from paying cash, people tend to be less aware of how much they actually spent.

Similarly, shopping online — either with a cellphone or a computer — helps take the sting out of parting with your money by making it deceptively simple to just click “add to cart.” Because you’re not physically parting with currency, you might not realize how many charges you’re racking up.

But never forget, whether you’re browsing in a store, sitting at a computer or fiddling with your phone: You’ll pay in the end.

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