Smartphones Are Changing How We Shop—And What We Shop For

Do The Khoa is a PhD student in marketing, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan.

A recent Journal of Marketing Research study by Camilla Eunyoung Song and Aner Sela shows that when consumers use smartphones, which are considered more personal and private than other devices, they are more likely to choose unique, self-expressive items that speak to their individual personalities. Using smartphones elevates consumers’ private self-focus, driving their preference for unique options that are unconventional and individually customized in their online shopping.

Journal of Marketing Research Scholarly Insights are produced in partnership with the AMA Doctoral Students SIG – a shared interest network for Marketing PhD students across the world.

Q: Considering that private self-focus might be culturally contextual, do you think cultural variability may alter the effect of smartphone usage on uniqueness preference?

Q: Could the findings of this study be extrapolated to other personal devices such as personal tablets?

A: As our research has shown, the personal and private nature of smartphones is what activates intimate self-knowledge and increases private self-focus. Interestingly, a preliminary survey we conducted among owners of multiple devices supports this notion, revealing that consumers tend to view their personal smartphones as an extension of their private self, more than other commonly used devices such as PCs and tablets. Therefore, while it’s possible that some effects may extend to other personal and private devices like tablets, our preliminary data suggest that smartphones may have a unique role in fostering a preference for uniqueness. Nonetheless, further empirical investigation would be needed to confirm this.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

A: While our studies include various product domains (e.g., candy bars, car brands, color combinations, lifestyle products, chocolate, charities, and wine), we didn’t explicitly differentiate between different types of products. However, it’s plausible that the impact could also extend to utilitarian products. If consumers are choosing products based on their self-expressive values and motivations, this could impact choices across a wide range of product categories, even for utilitarian products. 

One of the most dramatic shifts in retail recently has been consumers’ increased use of smartphones for making purchases and choices. As smartphones are now an integral part of online shopping for many consumers, it is important to understand how smartphone usage might reshape consumers’ purchasing journey. Smartphones not only change how consumers shop but also have the potential to affect what they purchase, influencing their decision making in ways that differ from when they use more traditional devices like personal computers (PCs).

Nagendra S M is a doctoral student in marketing, Indian Institute of Technology – Ropar, India.


Q: This paper proposes that smartphone usage heightens a sense of private self-focus that in turn drives consumers toward unique choices. Did you explore the possibility of a reciprocal relationship, i.e., consumers with a higher preference for uniqueness are more likely to use smartphones for making decisions?

When consumers use smartphones, which are considered more personal and private than other devices, they are more likely to choose unique, self-expressive items that speak to their individual personalities.

Q: Would this superior effect of the smartphone be also extended to other downstream variables beyond uniqueness preference?

As this finding has important implications for both consumers and marketers, we had a chance to contact the authors to garner additional insights into this interesting and timely topic.

Read the full article:

A: We agree that cultural context may play a role in moderating the effects. For instance, cultures that prioritize collective identity over individual uniqueness might show a different pattern of behavior when using smartphones. Our research did not specifically investigate this, which would be a fruitful area for further study.

A: We believe there is potential for further investigations into the broader implications of private self-focus activated by smartphone use. This could also be expanded to encompass other dimensions of self-expression. For instance, when a task is self-expressive and hedonic, it’s conceivable that individuals may derive higher satisfaction when using their smartphones. Interestingly, participants in our studies consistently rated their task as more difficult and annoying in the smartphone condition (which was uncorrelated with our dependent variable), so the effect of smartphone use on task satisfaction may not be clear cut and is likely to depend on the circumstances and content with which consumers engage.

Q: Consumers may choose more unique, unusual, or less popular venues when making purchases through smartphones. Can this be extrapolated to utilitarian products as well?

Camilla Eunyoung Song and Aner Sela (2023), “Phone and Self: How Smartphone Use Increases Preference for Uniqueness,” Journal of Marketing Research, 60 (3), 473–88. doi:10.1177/00222437221120404

Q: Consumers’ preferences and attitudes as expressed in surveys may vary due to the type of device used. Does this indicate a paradigm shift in how market research could progress in the future?

A: The hypothesis of a reciprocal relationship—that consumers with a higher preference for uniqueness are more likely to use smartphones for making decisions—is intriguing. However, it’s essential to note that in our research design, we randomly assigned participants to use either a smartphone or a PC, rather than letting them choose their preferred device for the survey. This approach was chosen to isolate the effects of the reciprocal relationship. Nevertheless, this certainly remains an interesting area for future exploration and could add an additional layer to our understanding of how smartphones and consumer behavior interplay.

A: Our research might provoke a potential shift in the market research landscape where the device used for survey administration may need to be considered when interpreting results. Existing insights into consumer preferences and attitudes might warrant reconsideration, given our emerging understanding of technology’s role in shaping consumer perception, attitude, choice, and preference. We eagerly anticipate contributing to developing more precise and effective digital-age marketing strategies.