Are tablets changing the way we shop?

Is online shopping killing brick-and-mortar retailers?

Many physical stores are embracing tablet technology to manage inventory, order supplies, and in some cases, even process sales transactions.
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.

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.

Related Articles


  • Associated Press. "Smartphones and Tablets May Spell the Death of the Cash Register." Fox News. March 22, 2013. (April 3, 2013)
  • Berk, Christina Cheddar. "Why Brick-and-Mortar Stores Will Trump Online in End: CEO." CNBC. Sept. 25, 2012. (April 6, 2013)
  • Bradley, Tony. "Five Tips to Avoid Malware in Mobile Apps." PC World. Nov. 14, 2011. (April 3, 2013)
  • Bradley, Tony. "Report: 2011 Is the 'Year of Mobile Malware.'" PC World. Nov. 21, 2011. (April 3, 2013)
  • Bradley, Tony. "Warning: Tips for Secure Mobile Holiday Shopping." PC World. Dec. 6, 2011. (March 31, 2013)
  • Carpenter, Susan. "Online Shopping: Better for the Environment?" LA Times. Dec. 16, 2011. (April 6, 2013)
  • Clifford, Stephanie. "Once Proudly Web Only, Shopping Sites Hang Out Real Shingles." New York Times. Dec. 18, 2012. (April 6, 2013)
  • Clifford, Stephanie. "Retailers Offer Apps With a Catalog Feel." New York Times. May 29, 2011. (March 30, 2013)
  • Clifford, Stephanie and Claire Cain Miller. "Retailers Retool Sites to Ease Mobile Shopping." New York Times. April 17, 2011. (March 30, 2013)
  • ComScore, Inc. "2012 U.S. Online Holiday Spending Grows 14 Percent vs. Year Ago to $42.3 Billion." Jan. 3, 2013. (March 30, 2013)
  • Dickey, Megan Rose. "12 Ways Technology Has Utterly Transformed the Way We Buy Things." Dec. 13, 2012. (April 1, 2013)
  • Edwards, Jim. "NEW DATA: How The Tablet Revolution Is Already Turning Ecommerce On Its Head." Business Insider. Nov. 19, 2012. (March 30, 2013)
  • eMarketer. "Record Retail Sales on Smartphones, Tablets Take Greater Ecommerce Share." Jan. 10, 2013. (April 3, 2013)
  • Google. "Google Wallet." (April 3, 2013)
  • Henry, Alan. "Five Best Mobile Price Comparison Apps." Life Hacker. Dec. 11, 2011. (April 8, 2013)
  • Indvik, Lauren. "U.S. Online Retail Sales to Reach $327 Billion by 2016 [STUDY]." Mashable. Feb. 27, 2012. (April 6, 2013)
  • Ingraham, Nathan. "Samsung and Apple Nearly Tied for Total Computer, Tablet, and Smartphone Shipments Last Quarter." The Verge. March 26, 2013. (April 8, 2013)
  • Kelly, Heather. "Seven Tips for Safer Online Shopping." CNN. Dec. 12, 2012. (March 30, 2013)
  • Kennedy, John. "PC Sales Plummet Worldwide as Tablets and Smartphones Roar Ahead." Silicon Republic. April 4, 2013. (April 8, 2013)
  • Lomas, Natasha. "Tablets Now Taking A Greater Global Share Of Web Page Views Than Smartphones, According To Adobe's Digital Index." Tech Crunch. March 7, 2013. (April 3, 2013)
  • Mello, John P. Jr. "Android Becoming Prime Target for Malware Makers." PC World. Aug. 23, 2011. (April 3, 2013)
  • Miller, Claire Cain. "Do People Actually Shop on Phones? The Answer Is Decidedly Yes." New York Times. Jan. 9, 2013. (March 28, 2013)
  • Miller, Claire Cain and Stephanie Clifford. "Retailers Try to Adapt to Device-Hopping Shoppers." New York Times. Dec. 21, 2012. (March 30, 2013)
  • Ngak, Chenda. "Black Friday and Cyber Monday: Tips for Secure Online and Mobile Shopping." CBS News. Nov. 22, 2012. (April 2, 2013)
  • Nielsen. "How U.S. Smartphone and Tablet Owners Use Their Devices for Shopping." May 3, 2012. (April 8, 2013)
  • Nielsen. "Mobile Devices Empower Today's Shoppers In-Store and Online." Dec. 4, 2012. (April 8, 2013)
  • Nielsen. "Smartphones: The Ultimate Shopping Companion." Feb. 22, 2012. (April 6, 2013)
  • Poulter, Sean. "One Pound in Every Tenner is Now Spent Online as Web Shop Rise Beats High Street by 23 Percent." Daily Mail. Oct. 21, 2011. (April 6, 2013)
  • Suarez, Paul. "Google Wallet: The Debate Rages." PC World. May 28, 2011. (April 3, 2013)
  • Tibken, Shara. "NFC: Not Just for Mobile Payments Anymore." CNET. Jan. 21, 2013. (April 6, 2013)
  • Tofel, Kevin C. "Nearly 1 in 4 Computers Sold Last Quarter Were Tablets." Gigaom. Nov. 5, 2012. (April 8, 2013)
  • Van Grove, Jennifer. "Everyone Except Grandma is Comparison Shopping Via Mobile, Study Finds." Venture Beat. Jan. 30, 2012. (April 6, 2013)
  • Van Grove, Jennifer. "Study: People Don't Use or Understand Digital Wallets." CNET. Feb. 4, 2013. (April 6, 2013)
  • West, Angela. "For Android, Paid Mobile Security Is Better: Study." PC World. Nov. 10, 2011. (April 3, 2013)
  • Whitney, Lance. "Apple to Develop Digital Wallet in Next Year or Two, Says Analyst." CNET. April 5, 2013. (April 6, 2013)
  • Wong, Bill. "Tablets Eclipse the PC Market." Electronic Design. Nov. 8, 2012, Volume 60, Issue 14, Pages 22-30. (April 5, 2013)