Shelves in an online shopping fulfillment center

Rebecca Wang Examines Mobile Shopping and Customer Purchase Behavior

Wang studies the effect of mobile shopping on customer loyalty, frequency and order size.

Story by

Stephen Gross

As a child, Rebecca Wang was fascinated by technology. That’s why the memory of receiving a painted dish while her cousin was gifted a robot one Lunar New Year has stuck with her. 

“I was so mad,” Wang, an assistant professor of marketing, recalls.

Wang’s interest in technology continues today, and, along with her prior work as a consultant for a grocery store chain, has inspired her current research on digital and mobile channels and data-driven marketing.

In a recent study, Wang and her colleagues examine the effect of mobile shopping on consumers in terms of frequency of purchases and whether consumers demonstrate greater brand loyalty by shopping on their phones and tablets. The study, “On the Go: How Mobile Shopping Affects Customer Purchase Behavior,” which also identifies shopping trends in mobile customers versus PC users, was co-authored by Edward C. Malthouse of the Medill IMC Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University, and Lakshman Krishnamurthi, a professor of marketing at Northwestern. It appears in the Journal of Retailing.

Stacked packages of toilet paper

In addition to identifying the products most likely (fresh fruits, pet products, water) and least likely (lotions, light bulbs, batteries) to be purchased on a mobile device versus a PC, the team discovered that orders composed of all, or mostly, mobile sessions included items that are staples, are consumed more quickly and don’t require much cognitive power, such as previous purchases or items from well-known companies. Those customers also relied more heavily on discounts.

A partnership between Northwestern’s Spiegel Research Center and an internet grocer gave Wang access to a data set that included transaction data as well as device usage and session information. Experian data purchased through a sponsorship provided information about the consumer’s online shopping dollars, education and income.

A technique called propensity score matching allowed Wang and her colleagues to study only those shoppers with similar loyalty levels among those who adopted mobile shopping. They found that people who downloaded the grocer’s app were more loyal than those who strictly used a web browser. However, multi-device users—omni users—were still more loyal.

“It’s not just mobile-only,” Wang says. “Nowadays you hear a lot of marketers who talk about ‘we need to boost our mobile marketing,’ but it’s really not about mobile marketing. It’s about omni-channel marketing. It’s mobile, plus PC, plus maybe your smartwatch.”

Wang broke loyalty down into two variables: how frequently a consumer shopped and order size. 

Of the three different groups—mobile-only, PC-only and omni users—frequency of purchases was highest for mobile-only, but order size was the smallest. Basket size—the amount of items in a virtual cart to be purchased—was much larger for PC users. However, the overall best consumers, Wang says, are omni users.

Wang’s research extends to other areas of consumer behavior. She has found that shoppers who download a company’s app are more loyal, even with a loyalty program. These results appear in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research and the Journal of Interactive Marketing. Separately, Wang studies omni users who switch between their devices in placing an order. She has found that those customers have a larger basket size, a higher ordering rate and increased loyalty.

As for an optimal path to loyalty, Wang says she’s still trying to determine if one exists. She believes it depends on how a customer began interacting with a company.

“If you have been a PC-only user since the early 2000s, then maybe going mobile may not be all that meaningful for you, as opposed to if you’re a new customer coming in,” Wang says.

With regard to retention rate, omni users come out on top, says Wang. She has found that in contrast, those who place their first order on mobile have a poor retention rate and tend to abandon buying from the company after just a few orders, while the retention rate for PC users is a little better. 

“Omni-channel really is the key,” Wang says.

Story by

Stephen Gross

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