Have Smartphones Caused the Death of the In-Store Impulse Buy?

05/13/2015 06:24 am ET | Updated May 13, 2016

In 2009, Freakonomics became a surprise nonfiction bestseller. Who would have thought that an economics book about disparate subjects such as bagels and realtors would have caused such a stir? The book was so popular that it spawned two successors, a popular podcast, and lucrative speaking engagements for its co-authors, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

Perhaps Levitt and Dubner will at some point address another interesting trend, if not a national emergency: the recent double-digit decline in gum sales.

We've been smacking our lips for more than a century. From a piece on BusinessInsider, gum-chewing "dates as far back as the ancient Greeks but arrived in the U.S. in its modern form in the 1860s, according to Mars Inc., the No. 1 player in the market with its Wrigley unit."

Inquisitive types wonder why this is happening, and there's no shortage of potential explanations:

  • Why waste the calories? (Along these lines, sales of traditional fast food and soda pop have also dropped as of late. McDonald's recently canned its CEO, although its new Steve Easterbrook could use a few communications lessons.)
  • When was the last time that you saw a gum commercial on television? Yes, I'm talking about the Wrigley's Doublemint twins?
  • New designer mints and fruit chews are cannibalizing traditional gum sales.
  • Cost: Some packs go for $2 or more.
  • While perhaps not on the same level as smoking, some people consider it a disgusting habit.

But what about the elephant in the room?

At IBM Amplify in San Diego this week, Ashu Garg, General Partner at Foundation Capital, asked a simple yet powerful question: How have customers in the checkout aisle changed their behavior in the last ten years?

Think about the last time you waited on a line at a supermarket, convenience store, big-box retailer, or pharmacy? Were you looking at candy, gum, and the latest travails of Kim Kardashian? (You may have been looking, but you probably weren't buying. Like gum, magazine sales on newsstands are withering as well.)

Odds are that you were looking down at your smartphone, something that we do 150 times per day? With a few minutes to spare, why not check your social networks, email, text messages, or the news? While you're enraptured in your own little world, you're probably not paying attention to big things like gravity, never mind little packets of candy that you probably don't need.

The explosion of mobile devices has changed just about everything. Indeed, in the whole scheme of things, the ability of capture just about anything on video seems more socially significant than whether gum sales ultimately suffer.

Simon Says

Consumer tastes are more diverse than ever, and we are adopting new technologies at an unprecedented rate. Companies that fail to understand--and act on--these new realities may find themselves obsolete or extinct. It has never been more important to understand the customer experience, and that will require new tools, data sources, and mind-sets.


What say you?