Why Did I Buy This Cheese, Is It Because of YouTube?

The effects of using our phones while grocery shopping

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Cheese and YouTube
Cheese and YouTube

My mom always told me never to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. And indeed there are several studies that shows grocery shopping when your stomach is rumbling is not a good idea. The reasons why varies based on the study you look at. Regardless of what research, I make sure I eat before stepping into the grocery store, to limit my spending Now it seems that I should also put my phone in my bag before I head in, as it appears that if I use my phone while shopping, I will purchase more than I intend.

A recent study found that we will end up spending more than we planned if we use our phone while shopping. In this study, shoppers were asked to shop while listening to music, texting, checking emails, being on social media, and other activities on their phones. When I read that study, I was expecting to find that once distracted by the phone, one would buy less than expected ending with having to visit the store again. But to my surprise, it was exactly the opposite. When on your phone you will spend 41% more.


When I’m heading to the supermarket I have a list, and if I don’t, I have a general idea of what I plan on buying. Most likely, I will get the items I got once before. I am mission driven to get what I need and move on.

The reason for this lies in the way our brain works when shopping, and the vast amount of choices we have. When we are there, our brain needs to make a decision on every item — do we want it or not. Because there are so many items, and it is impossible for the human mind to consciously process and choose between all of them, our brains are trying to simplify the complexity of the process in different ways. One way is to activate a kind of internal autopilot that follows a shopping script, to get only what we need. Essentially, this means that you most likely will go to same the shelves and sections you always go to, and buy the same products repeatedly.

Now if we add the phones to the mix this entire shopping script is being compromised.

We have one brain, right?! If you read my previous articles you probably know that our one brain can only do one thing at a time, we cannot multitask. If we try, our brain will constantly switch between tasks, ending up in slowing the process and exceeding the time it takes us to finish our tasks. In the settings of a grocery store, the study states that “it would not be possible to spatially navigate in the store while looking at photos on Instagram or to undertake careful evaluations of products while talking with someone on the phone.“

Besides not being able to efficiently do two tasks at the same time, we also slow down.

Slowing down is the key to understanding why we will buy more. Once we slow down we spend more time examining products and information on shelves, products we don’t necessarily intend on buying.

In this research shoppers were given special glasses to track their eye movement. The interesting thing found was, that we think we see only our phones and that it will act as a blinder, preventing us from seeing other products. However, when we use our phones while at the store we use our peripheral vision to prevent us from knocking down displays or bumping into other people. That same peripheral vision with us slowing down (because when we walk and text we walk slower), we noticed the other items on the nearby shelves. All of a sudden, items that we would normally filter will be taken into consideration. Increases shelf attention and, thus, purchases.

Our brain knows to filter the items we don’t need and help us focus on those we do, as long as we are focused on the task in hand. But wait, which task — YouTube or shopping?

Adding all that information brings us to the understanding that when we divert from the conventional shopping loop, spend more time in the store, and spend more time examining various products and prices on shelves, we end up buying more.

There are exception to the rule

It seems that if you use your mobile phones for shopping task related activities (like checking the shopping list, or do some calculations), this will affect you less that if you were to be using the phone for checking social media, YouTube, emails, calls, etc.

Furthermore, if you only check your phone at the checkout aisle you should be fine, the blinders exist only in this part of the store.

Knowledge is key

Buying more than you need at the grocery store because you were on your phone is not necessarily a bad thing. You may discover new ingredients, or special food you may not have come across if you were not to be on your phone. However, if you are a shopper on a budget, this could become an issue. As long as you are aware of this, there is no problem. Hey, you got to the end of this article, so you are aware of it now 🙂

To be a smart shopper you need to know what you are facing. The stores will use many ways to keep you there. It can be charging stations, mobile games, and reward systems. As long as you are aware of that, and that this is all to keep you there for a longer period of time so you will buy more, that’s great.

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