Digital Shopping Lists Can Lead to Impulse Buying

woman shopping in a grocery store with a list on her smartphone

woman shopping in a grocery store with a list on her smartphone

A shopping list goes a long way in helping us remember what we need when going grocery shopping. Some of us prefer to handwrite a list while others use apps (like “Notes”) on their smartphones. With smartphones constantly attached to consumers and digital lists gaining more traction, researchers at Drexel University looked at which type of grocery list leads to more impulse purchases. They found that a traditional hand-written list is the way to go if you want to avoid unnecessary spending.

“The goal of our research was to examine how traditional handwritten shopping lists differ from digital shopping lists created on smart devices in terms of their impact on both shopping list composition and consumers’ shopping behavior,” said Yanliu Huang, associate professor of marketing in Drexel’s LeBow College of Business, who led the research.

Huang and doctoral student Zhen Yang studied the shopping habits of 255 participants and found that when putting a grocery list together a paper shopping list included more products than a digital shopping list. They found this is because handwriting a list provoked more thinking than typing a digital list. The increased cognitive effort required for the handwritten list was also responsible for a higher commitment to fulfilling the shopping list.

Participants who used a digital shopping list, on the other hand, often viewed it as tentative and expected it to change which led to more unplanned and impulse or unnecessary purchases in store. Participants purchased 85-91% of their paper list whereas digital shopping list participants fulfilled 67-76% of their list despite the fact that it was shorter to begin with.

“It’s possible that when consumers use a digital list in the store, they are more likely to be distracted by smartphone activities that are unrelated to shopping such as checking email, browsing social media or news,” said Huang. “Task-unrelated smartphone usage in-store has also been shown as a driver of unplanned purchases.”

The paper, “Write or Type? How a Paper versus Digital Shopping List Influences the Way Consumers Plan and Shop,” was published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

Media interested in interviewing Yanliu Huang, should contact Niki Gianakaris at or 215-895-6741.

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