Surprising Revelations from Online Shopping Survey

Back in April of this year, Sumo Heavy Industries released a survey about online shopping which contains some important insights into the online shopping experience from the consumer viewpoint.  While the “official” conclusions from the survey data are kind of predictable, you can apply your own filters based on your philosophy, and the results could be speaking to you differently.

For example, Sumo had this to say on the issue of mobile users as a target demographic:

Consumers still prefer to purchase products on laptops and desktops rather than smartphones or tablets, as 3 out of 4 respondents have indicated…. However, 28% prefer to shop on tablets and smartphones so it's critical for brands and retailers to provide their customers with a seamless mobile-optimized experience.

Whoah there… let's ignore for the moment that those statistics add up to 103% and instead take an analytical view of the conclusion that was reached.  If we also consider other statistics shown on the page indicating that 48% of respondents claim that tablet shopping experiences fell short of expectations and 20% of respondents said that their mobile shopping experiences were “highly unpleasant”, we could draw a very different conclusion from that, depending on our attitude.  Here's an alternative interpretation:

Depending on which data you decide to trust, somewhere between 25% and 28% of respondents shop using a mobile device, and other data suggests that this particular market segment is notoriously difficult to please.  Therefore it may be a false economy to invest too heavily in trying to please this market segment when the majority of consumers don't like to shop this way.

As you can no doubt guess, the first interpretation of data is a really safe interpretation.  It's the kind of thing managers like to see because it reinforces the stereotypical lectures they get on a regular basis telling them how important mobile users are.  What is particularly interesting, however, is that users don't seem to be blaming the devices, or if they are, the survey isn't asking them that.  It's implying that it's the website design that is letting consumers down, when there's no hard data to support that view.

Mobile user interfaces in their current implementation overwhelmingly suck.  It doesn't really matter what brand it is, or how much you paid to obtain it, it's harder to use than it should be.  Many users of Android, for example, don't know how to close a browser tab once it has been created.  The method to do that is not intuitive, and so some users are maxing out their phone memory and compromising their privacy without even knowing it.

Another concern you need to have about survey data like this is that it's pitched as “a study of over 1000 US consumers”, but in fact if you delve deeper you'll find that the respondents were all sourced from New York City, and 52% of them were female.  This wouldn't really seem to be representative of the US population as a whole, so while this doesn't make the data or the findings invalid, it does at least indicate the scope of the survey was very narrow, and we can't expect this data to be representative of national attitudes in quite the same way that we could have if the survey had been conducted in a different location.

For this data to truly reflect national attitudes to online shopping, it would ideally have included more respondents, and it would have included respondents from all US states, plus at least 20% of respondents would have been sourced from rural areas.

This didn't happen, so what we have is 0.012% of the population of New York City, where residents enjoy the highest average weekly wage in the nation by a significant margin according to a 2014 report published by the US Department of Labor titled the County Employment and Wages Summary.

In consequence we could expect that some of these respondents may have a slightly greater sense of entitlement than the average American, and that's even if we don't buy into the widely held theory that New Yorkers are bestowed with an attitude as a birth right.  Complaints are to be expected, so it is hardly surprising that there were a lot of complaints.  If the same survey was conducted in North Carolina, we'd probably see a much lower percentage of mobile users and we'd expect to see a much lower percentage of mobile users complaining.  More importantly, if we didn't see a drop in the percentage of complaints, that would be significant and meaningful.

What was really a useful statistic to come out of the survey was that:

Consumers under 30 are twice as likely to prefer shopping online with a smartphone.

This one statement alone would refute the earlier conclusion that investing in mobile development might be wasteful, because what this tells us is that the market segment of smartphone users compared to desktop users is probably going to increase over time.  Suddenly it's looking like the authors were right on the money with their original conclusion, except that they didn't mention that age related data in presenting the conclusion.  That shows how you need to be really analytical about any findings that are presented in surveys and not just accept them at face value.

It seems ludicrous to think that if you put a cell phone, a tablet, and a desktop computer all together on the same table and asked somebody to choose one device to make their purchase with, that anybody, regardless of age, would chose the phone.  Common sense suggests that nobody could actually prefer to use a mobile device for shopping unless you also add some extra context that is not included in the data.

A desktop computer gives you a bigger display, more options, more choices, easier navigation, less chance of making errors… there's no way anyone prefers something inferior to that.  But if you add the context that they prefer mobile phones over desktop computers because they're able to make use of them while they are on the move, that makes sense.

It was interesting to note that 64% of mobile users prefer mobile-optimized websites compared with dedicated online shopping apps.  That is significant, but curiously Sumo again chose to favor the underdog, stating:

More than a third do prefer mobile apps—something that should be carefully considered as part of a complete mobile strategy.

That's where you really want to be paying attention.  Mobile application development is expensive, and it's very likely that many people using those apps don't understand that downloading an app will take up space on their device, so unless the consumer is shopping with one particular merchant exclusively on a repeat basis, it's not worth it to the consumer to download an app to do something they could be doing on a website.  The statistic is more indicative of the fact that over a third of people in NYC who use these devices for online shopping are ignorant of the disadvantages of using apps compared to optimized websites, and that's probably all it indicates.

Throwing away big money to develop a dedicated shopping app just because of a preference by a minority of users is not good business sense.  It would be better to invest that money on improving the website and further optimizing it for mobile users.  It must be kept in mind that the word used again is preference, so it doesn't mean that if you don't have an app, you're going to lose the sale.  It just means the person buying from you doesn't appreciate the efforts you have made in optimizing your website for their use.

The same data set also revealed the majority of users of those devices were using them for price comparison (note this is not purchase, it is window shopping), so if your business consistently offers better prices than your competitors, it would be a good strategy to show this on your site.  You could capture more mobile purchases that way.


A good number of people we using the devices to search for discounts, coupons and special deals.  So again, if your business is able to offer special discounts for online shoppers with coupon codes, it could be a good idea to include this as a feature.  This is also where the matter of it being a New York City survey really skews the results, because if you conducted this survey in Helsinki, Sydney, or Singapore, that particular issue would be way down the list of priorities for an average user.  If you're an international seller, keep that in mind.

A similar number used their mobile devices to read product reviews, so it is suggested that your business should be including full, honest, reliable and detailed reviews of every product you carry, and in this way you may capture a lot more traffic and make a lot more sales.

That concept was verified by subsequent data that revealed far fewer users were influenced by product recommendations (29%) and featured product listings (24%).  That doesn't mean you shouldn't feature or recommend certain products, but consumers are more likely to respect your recommendations if you have a reputation for providing honest reviews of products.

Throughout many articles that we've presented recently, we've pointed out that begging people to subscribe to your newsletter with pop-up windows is a really bad idea, and this is borne out by the fact that 96% of those survey respondents are annoyed by these solicitations, and only 25% view them more favorably if you offer an incentive.  The logical thing to do then, is find a less annoying way to encourage people to become subscribers.

The above analysis is hardly exhaustive, but you can find out much more by visiting the Sumo website and getting direct access to their survey data.

header image courtesy of stocksnap 

Emma Grant

Emma Grant is a professional freelance content writer from Ireland. Over the past three years she has travelled the world while running her business from her laptop. You find her at