But Can Your Smartphone Pick The Fastest Checkout Line?

Shoppers are increasingly distracted by their smartphones at the checkout lines, and as a result they're less likely to make impulse purchases on items like candy or magazines. Writer Jon Nathanson tells host Rachel Martin that this change in habit is prompting retailers to come up with new ways to grab shopper's attention.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You know how it goes. You're waiting in the line at the grocery store and all of a sudden something catches your eye - the latest People magazine or the shiny wrapper on a candy bar, maybe a package of refreshing breath mints. And before you know it, you impulsively grab all three. Retailers try to maximize our impulsive buying habits by placing these items strategically in our line of vision at the last moment before checking out at the store. But today, chocolate and chewing gum have to compete with smartphones for our attention. And guess who's winning? Let's just say retailers aren't so happy. Writer Jon Nathanson has written an article for the priceonomics.com blog titled "Are Smartphones Making Us Less Impulsive?" Jon Nathanson joins us now from San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us, Jon.

JON NATHANSON: Hi, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, you write that retailers have a derogatory term for smartphones. They call them mobile blinders. What does that mean?

NATHANSON: Essentially what happens when we're standing in line at the checkout aisle, typically we are a captive audience. Now, I happen to work at a mobile application developer and so I am currently fighting on the other side of this battle. I'm developing apps that will keep you locked on your phone screen, whether you're checking Facebook, email, texting your friends. And so while you're doing that, that aisle happens to be primetime for mobile usage. So, what's happening is you are blind to all of the items in the impulse counter.

MARTIN: So, this is not good news for retailers. How important are those last-impulse buys?

NATHANSON: It turns out they're quite important, Rachel, especially to certain businesses, like the candy business, that happens to make up 30 percent of all the sales coming from the checkout counter.

MARTIN: How you come down to this personally when you're standing in line? Are you more distracted? Are you preoccupied with your smartphone or do you scan the checkout aisles for gummy bears?

NATHANSON: Well, I am the world's most impulsive shopper. I've been that guy who has gone in there and who has mostly chosen the gummy bears over the essentials. That being said, I am also now in the business of, and am obsessed with mobile devices. And so I first noticed this concept when, in fact, I had cut down on my own impulse shopping. I'm starting to save quite a bit of money through texting and emailing at the impulse counter.

MARTIN: Are grocery stores, retailers starting to fight back?

NATHANSON: Absolutely. They're going to start raising their voices. They will start using your mobile phone to get your attention, whether that's beaming advertisements and promotions and coupons directly to your phone, whether that is using very futuristic technologies in the store, like facial recognition software to find you in the aisles and show you advertisements that they believe are relevant to you, based on everything from what you've bought before to theoretically even what you look like.

MARTIN: If that's true, there's going to be like a giant hologram gummy bear following you around in the grocery store.

NATHANSON: I will not be able to escape it. You know, if that gummy bear won't jump in the basket at the checkout counter, it'll find me and stalk me.

MARTIN: Jon Nathanson. He joined me from San Francisco. Thank you so much for talking with us, Jon.

NATHANSON: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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