Mobile First? New Research Says Not So Fast

It’s hard to find a marketer these days that hasn’t fallen hard for all the “mobile first” hype. But a new study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management shows that while a mobile strategy is essential, it can’t be the only one. Lakshman Krishnamurthi, a marketing professor and co-author, explains how those small screens shape shopping behavior.

Q. Your study looked at the behavior of people shopping at an Internet grocer operating in 12 different states. What surprised you?

A. With m-commerce increasing, I think many people think Internet shoppers are willing to buy anything through their mobile device. But we found real differences. People are more likely to purchase things they know well and buy habitually, like fresh fruit, pet food or baby products, and that makes mobile a great loyalty-building tool.



But the screen size is a limitation, too. They are much less likely to search out anything new or unfamiliar. Our study found that people are less likely to buy things like stationery, light bulbs, and other electrical products. So for introducing a new product or more complex purchases, mobile isn’t as useful.

Q. So you’re not a fan of “mobile-first” thinking?

A. It depends what you are selling. Take Uber. When people need a ride from Point A to Point B, they’re probably not in front of their computer and their phone is in their hand. Of course, that strategy should be primarily mobile. But more important purchases — and those with bigger consequences if you choose badly — aren’t likely going to be made on mobile.

Q. Many would argue that if you’re trying to reach Gen Y or Gen Z, mobile is essential. And that experiences for PCs matter less. 

A. I don't think it’s as much about the age of your audience as what you’re selling. Take shopping for a home, or planning a vacation. Mobile may be some part of the shopping experience, but you aren’t likely to buy those unless you have plenty of time comparing pictures and Web sites. When someone is buying a refrigerator, they’re probably doing an extensive search, including magazine reviews and in-store visits. It’s just harder to do that on a phone.

Q. So what is the best use of mobile?

A. Our study found that mobile turned low-volume Internet shoppers into high-volume purchasers, and that’s very important. That means you’re taking share away from another competitor, and creating stickiness — it’s a net positive, because you’re gaining shoppers you didn’t have before. For people who are already high-volume shoppers, mobile made purchases more frequent, but didn’t necessarily increase volume. Both are good, though — they mean consumers are becoming more entrenched in mobile shopping. It’s relationship-building. 

Q. Rather than thinking of mobile as a strategy, how should marketing approach it?

A. The basic questions are more important. Who is my target? What are their goals? What impediments do they face to get what they want? And how can I help them?

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