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Why you shouldn’t shop online using your phone

Want to make the best purchasing decision? Use your PC instead of a mobile device.

In a perfect TreeHuggerian world, all holiday gifts would be handcrafted from lovely garbage, wrapped in last year's wrinkled wrapping paper, and topped with a pinecone ornament gathered from the woods (while foraging for dinner). But realistically, we know that even the crunchiest of us may end up buying a few things online.

But a word of warning, if you do plan on shopping online rather than handcrafting something or shopping from local businesses, do it from your computer, not your phone. Because according to researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, cybershoppers make better buying decisions on PCs rather than mobile devices.

And the reason is simple; most sites' mobile versions don't present information in the same way as do the desktop/laptop versions.

“The issue is not actually screen size,” says Prof. Lior Fink, head of the Mobile Behavior Lab and a member of the BGU Department of Industrial Engineering and Management. “It is actually the fact that sites adjusted for mobile viewing reduce the information offered on the results page and require more digging around in the site for information. Sites adjusted for PC viewing give more information right up front.”

They found that whether selecting anything from apparel to electronics and even hotel rooms, shoppers can make decisions more in line with their preferences when using a PC rather than a mobile device.

In experiments, when the all of the same information was presented on both PC and mobile screens right up front – even if it made the mobile screen more awkward – participants made “accurate” choices. But when they were given the reduced information that is normal in a mobile version, the participants made decisions that were “less accurate and less aligned with their preferences.”

“Most e-commerce providers use ‘responsive web design' to adapt the presentation of information to the device used.” Fink explains. “While mobile friendly presentation improves visibility, it reduces the amount of information and causes consumers to make decisions that are less consistent with their preferences.”

In this age of rampant consumerism and a glut of unwanted stuff, we should be making the most accurate shopping choices we can. And since we are increasingly shopping with our mobile devices, this could be a real problem. On 2018's Black Friday in the United States, more than $2 billion in online sales were made on phones.

The study authors conclude that for the sake of decision-making, it would be better for retailers to present the same information on all platforms. “Consumers will find the information more difficult to view on mobile devices, but their decisions will be more accurate,” they note.

But let's face it, that's not going to happen. User experience is too important, and the Great Overlord Of All Things Internet (Google, which makes and breaks sites with a twitch of its algorithm) places a lot of emphasis on mobile usability. Of all the things the Great Overlord looks at in deciding how to rank a website, mobile usability has become one of the most important. Google rankings are gold, and nobody's going to start making their mobile sites more difficult to use, regardless if it leads to consumers making better purchases or not.

Fortunately, the fix is pretty easy: If you're going to shop online and want to make the best choice, do it by desktop or laptop, not by phone.

The findings will be presented next month at the International Conference on Information Systems.

Want to make the best purchasing decision? Use your PC instead of a mobile device.