Why You Shouldn’t Multitask While Shopping

Researchers recommend avoiding the phone while you're browsing the aisles—or at least trying to reduce stress and other distractions. 

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Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Want to make better shopping decisions? Put away your phone and other distractions. In a study published last week in the Journal of Retailing, people who multitasked at the store were less successful at finding and purchasing exactly what they were looking for.

What’s more, these people didn’t even realize their shopping skills had been impaired: Afterward, they were just as confident in their purchases as those who hadn’t been multitasking—even though they actually did a poorer job executing the task at hand.

The study involved 119 participants, who were asked to visit a grocery store and shop for pasta sauce they’d use to make dinner for a visiting friend. The shoppers were told that the friend was on a diet, and to choose a sauce that was low in calories.

Because the researchers suspected that the participants’ mindsets going into the shopping task might affect their ability to focus despite distraction, they split them up and gave them different scenarios to think about as they shopped: Some were asked to consider why they might look for a job, and some were asked to consider how they might look for a job.

“Mindsets are activated response styles that bring up different information processing strategies,” co-author Selin Atalay, PhD, professor of marketing at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany, told Real Simple. (In this case, individuals were either focused on how they could achieve a goal, or they were deliberating over why they should take a particular action.) “Roughly stated, individuals in ‘how’ mindsets are ready to act, whereas individuals in ‘why’ mindsets are still contemplating.”

Then, to measure the effects of multi-tasking, half of the shoppers in each mindset group were asked to listen to a recording and remember information from it while they perused the grocery-store aisles.

Results showed that the shoppers in the “how” mindset were not significantly affected by the multitasking assignment. But people in the “why” mindset performed worse: Those who listened to the recording purchased sauces that had 88 more calories per serving, on average, than those who focused on shopping alone. And shoppers who reported being stressed during their trip made especially unwise choices.

“Why” mindsets require more cognitive resources and internal analysis than “how” mindsets, the authors say, so adding distractions on top of that may raise stress levels and result in faster, less careful decision-making.

It’s not surprising that distractions can affect our ability to make smart purchases; anyone who’s ever chatted with a friend during a shopping trip only to forget an important item on their list can relate to that. But the findings about different mindsets and stress levels are new and intriguing, says Atalay.

“We do not suggest that all multitasking is bad," she says. "In fact we show that people can multitask in how mindsets, and also if they manage their stress, they can also successfully multitask in why mindsets.”

So what should you do if you want to avoid making bad choices when buying groceries, clothes, or gifts for others? It may be possible to force yourself into one mindset or the other, says Atalay, but that would be “very unnatural and difficult.”

“A better strategy is to become aware of one’s stress that is rising when one is multitasking,” Atalay says, “because ultimately turning stress off turns off the negative impact of multitasking on task performance.”

Of course, you could always leave your phone in your pocket and choose to take that call, listen to that voicemail, or check that social network while you’re also browsing for goods. In today’s world, that’s not always feasible, Atalay admits—but when it is, she says, “not multitasking is the safest solution.”