Are tablets changing the way we shop?

Woman holding credit card while looking at a tablet.
Impulse shopping is easier than ever when you have a tablet in your hands.
© Ian Lishman/Juice Images/Corbis

If you own a tablet, do you find yourself lounging on the couch, surfing through retail sites and blowing money with a few swipes and taps of the screen? Or do you wander through a store consulting your shopping list and comparing prices on your smartphone? If so, you are not alone. And the ranks of constantly connected consumers are growing.

Both the tablet and its tiny cousin, the smartphone, are indeed changing our shopping habits. Nielsen has found that most smartphone and tablet owners use the devices for shopping-related activities. Of mobile shoppers, a much higher percentage of tablet owners use the devices for buying items or services than do their smartphone compatriots, and they are also slightly more prone to use their tablets for researching potential purchases. But smartphone users are more likely to do things like use their devices to locate a store, check prices, peruse shopping lists and redeem mobile coupons -- activities more likely to occur on the go [source: Nielsen].


Smartphones were adopted first and had an early lead in mobile commerce, but despite the fact that there are still fewer tablets than smartphones, purchases through tablets are fast approaching (or may have even overtaken) purchases through phones. Web marketing company Monetate's numbers showed phones still holding a small lead in late 2012 at 8.37 percent for tablets versus 10.03 percent for phones [source: Edwards]. But eMarketer, a company that compiles and analyzes research statistics, estimated that tablets overtook phones in 2012 (6.2 percent for tablets versus 4.4 percent for phones) and expected tablets to account for 9.4 percent of online sales -- and smartphones to account for around 5.3 percent of online sales -- in 2013 [source: eMarketer].

Several factors might be contributing to the faster increase in tablet-based sales. The conversion rate, or the rate at which a site visit turns into an actual purchase, is apparently higher on tablets than phones. Perhaps the larger screen makes Web surfing and shopping a more pleasant experience, or perhaps people are more likely to use tablets when they're taking advantage of their leisure time at home, a time they are also more likely to shop online. The relative affluence of people who own tablets, especially expensive ones like the iPad, may also come into play. The average sales amount per purchase is reportedly higher on tablets than on either phones or old-school desktop and laptop computers. Tablets have even surpassed smartphones in numbers of Web views [source: Lomas].

Additionally, eMarketer estimated that U.S. e-commerce sales via mobile devices increased by 81 percent in 2012, taking total mobile sales from 7 percent of all e-commerce in 2011 to 11 percent in 2012. The firm projected that mobile device shopping will account for roughly 15 percent of e-commerce in 2013 and up to 24 percent in 2016 [sources: eMarketer, Miller]. Monetate asserted that the U.S. mobile sales figures are even higher, at 7.67 percent of all online commerce in the third quarter of 2011 and 18.4 percent in the third quarter of 2012 [source: Edwards].

Although online sales through traditional computers still outweigh those on mobile devices as of early 2013, and in-person shopping far surpasses e-commerce in general, mobile shopping is poised to grow and grow, especially as more people adopt Web-enabled tablets and phones.


What kinds of shopping activities are happening on mobile devices?

Man using tablet to shop while browing physical stores.
Many consumers take advantage of their mobile Web access to comparison shop while browsing brick-and-mortar stores.
© Mareen Fischinger/Corbis

There are lots of ways to shop on tablets and smartphones, including through apps or Web sites optimized for mobile devices. To draw in would-be shoppers, some companies are offering apps for mobile devices that more closely resemble magazines or catalogs than they do traditional retailer Web sites. These allow the user to do the virtual equivalent of window-shopping, as well as create wish lists and make purchases, sometimes with even more ease than Web sites due to the high level of interactivity allowed by the touch screen. Not all retailers have apps or mobile sites, but this will likely change as more and more people shop on their devices.

There are other types of apps that aid customers in their shopping activities. Digital wallets allow users to store their financial information, including credit and debit cards, and use their phones to make purchases in stores in lieu of what would normally be in their wallets. These most commonly use a technology called near-field communications (NFC), which is built into some, but not all, smartphones. It allows you to tap your phone on another NFC device to exchange information and make a payment. Google Wallet is the most well known, but there are offerings from Square, Visa, MasterCard and others. Digital wallets have not taken off quite yet, likely due to the rarity of NFC devices, scant knowledge of these services and safety fears, but they may be the wave of the future. As of 2013, iPhones do not have NFC, but Apple is reportedly working on incorporating NFC or a similar technology into upcoming iPhone models.


Apple does, however, have a Passbook app that allows you to store and use various participating retailer's loyalty cards. Some retailers have their own loyalty apps, and digital wallets can also serve this function. Deal sites like Groupon also have apps that let you redeem digital coupons.

You can use your mobile device during in-person shopping trips in other ways, too. People commonly use their smartphones to comparison shop while wandering brick-and-mortar stores. There are, of course, apps for this. They allow you to do everything from scan the barcode to photograph the item to speak or type its name, and will return other retailers' prices, reviews and product information. Or you can simply surf the Net and find prices and reviews.

So there are lots of ways to shop on your phone or tablet. But is it entirely safe?


What are the pitfalls of mobile shopping?

Woman using a tablet while shopping for groceries.
Love the free WiFi at your local grocery store? Just be sure to avoid transmitting any sensitive personal or financial information over an unsecured network.
© Olson

Security is always an issue when shopping online, but mobile devices open consumers up for some additional safety concerns, just by virtue of their portability.

Many experts warn to be wary of what you type when connected to an unknown or public WiFi network. You never know who might be lurking there, poised to grab any financial or personal information you type. It's safer to make purchases on a private, password-protected network. Security analysts also warn to make sure any transactions are going through a URL starting with https rather than http. The "s" means it is a secure site, and that the data you are transmitting, such as credit card numbers and other personal information, is encrypted. Also be sure to look into any online vendors you visit to make sure they are reputable.


Another basic but very important safety measure to consider is password protecting your mobile device. You're likely walking around with a treasure trove of information that someone could use to steal your identity or your money should your phone or tablet be lost or stolen. Any apps that contain sensitive information should also be password protected, if they have that option. Some mobile devices have a feature that lets you unlock your phone with facial recognition. And other security technologies, like biometric fingerprint reading, are in the works.

Malware is still far more common for desktops and laptops, but the number of malicious mobile apps is growing. Experts warn to only download apps from reputable locations like Apple's App Store, Amazon or Google Play. Even then, shoppers should be wary and do research, including looking at reviews of the apps to see if there are any complaints. There are also mobile apps designed to protect against malware and viruses, although they, too, need to be researched.

Using payment services like PayPal for purchases, or the aforementioned digital wallets, can also help secure your financial information, provided you are taking other safety precautions. They prevent you from having to type in credit and debit card numbers directly. And using credit cards is a tad safer than using debit cards, since they aren't a direct route to your bank account and tend to offer more protection in the case of stolen cards or numbers.

In another way tablets are shaping the shopping experience, people often browse on a mobile device but making their final purchase on a traditional PC. Some estimate that mobile devices account for 25 percent of e-commerce site visits, but that this translates into only 15 percent of purchases [source: Miller and Clifford]. However, tablet and smartphone sales have been rapidly increasing, while sales of more traditional desktop and laptop computers are in a steady decline. With increases in the mobile device market share and shifting attitudes, the percentage of sales completed on mobile devices is bound to go up.

Many retail sites are instituting changes that make both mobile and computer purchasing easier, such as logins that allow shopping carts and personal information to sync over multiple devices, plus more user-friendly checkout areas. Holiday shopping trends like Cyber Monday (the post-Black Friday online shopping extravaganza) and Free Shipping Day are also leading to increases in online shopping in general. Is e-commerce going to eventually kill in-person shopping?


Is online shopping killing brick-and-mortar retailers?

Grocer in front of produce, holding a tablet
Many physical stores are embracing tablet technology to manage inventory, order supplies, and in some cases, even process sales transactions.
© Frank van Delft/cultura/Corbis

Some think online shopping is sounding the death knell for physical stores, but that might be a bit premature. E-commerce on tablets and phones is growing, but sales at brick-and-mortar stores still outnumber online sales via any device. According to a study by research firm Forrester, although over half of consumers are making some purchases online (and these sales total hundreds of billions of dollars a year), in 2012 e-commerce accounted for only 7 percent of all retail. It's expected to reach just 9 percent by 2016 [source: Indvik].

Some traditionally online-only sites are even finding that customers want to see, touch and try physical items in person, or that they want to have the physical and social experience of going on a shopping trip. Several are opening physical stores. But these aren't quite throwbacks to traditional shops with clunky cash registers and tons of merchandise in the back. They're using some of the online paradigms to make things more efficient, like carrying less inventory, having smaller floors and fewer staff members and using the store as sort of a showroom for items that you can get in a wider variety online. Some are also using their existing warehousing and distribution methods to ship to their own stores rather than straight to customers. Even online giant eBay is testing out temporary stores, albeit ones where you can only peruse items on a screen.


Many existing brick-and-mortar retailers are also incorporating some of the conveniences that make online shopping both possible and pleasant, like in-store search capabilities via computers, touch screens or kiosks, some of which also let you order online when you can't find what you're looking for in the store. Lots of retailers now also offer the ability to order merchandise online and pick it up at a local store. This service can be used to ship gifts to others and to avoid shipping hassles and expenses.

Tablets, as well as smaller devices like the iPod touch, are becoming fixtures in stores, allowing staff members to move about more freely while helping customers search for merchandise information or even checking them out. Systems have been developed that let retailers ditch their cash registers and ring up sales on a mobile device with a card reader. There are even retailer apps being tested that let customers ring themselves up.

The digital age is definitely causing retail to evolve, and we can now buy a great many things from just about any location with the use of our fast-improving computing devices. But the majority of us are unlikely to do all our shopping in our pajamas anytime soon.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: Are tablets changing the way we shop?

Shopping in the middle of the night on a tablet from bed is a weakness of mine. I'm especially vulnerable to the daily deal and t-shirt sites in the wee hours of the morning when insomnia has me, so I can see how and why people spend more on their tablets than phones. It's easier to leisurely peruse the big pretty images and read pages of product information on a tablet than on a phone. Not to mention the larger virtual keyboard.

The phone, however, really does come in handy for review reading and comparison shopping while wandering around a store. It has kept me from making many an in-person impulse buy and aided me in making more informed decisions on what I do end up purchasing. My Consumer Reports subscription helps, too, and more often than not, I log into it via my phone while I'm looking at electronics.

Researching this article has verified that I am a statistic, and possibly a shopaholic. For the good of my finances, perhaps I need to concentrate on more productive uses for my mobile devices, like money management, gaming or e-book reading. Although those generally require purchases, too.

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