Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Internet and Consumer Choice

Buying a cell phone and online resources


Cell phones have become a staple for many Americans, with 78% of adults now having one, up from 21% in 1996. With many cell phone allowing users to have free or low-cost upgrades of phones every 24 months, decisions on new cell phone purchases periodically face users.

In this survey, 39% of adults said that they had bought a cell phone in the previous year. Some 26% of adults were directed to the cell phone module of questions in the survey that asked about the decision-making process in buying a new cell phone. A range of reasons were cited as to why people bought a new phone.

  • 27% said their old cell phone failed or broke.
  • 14% simply wanted a new phone.
  • 13% wanted a better phone, or one with more features.
  • 13% said they were offered a good deal, got a free or low-cost upgrade, or got a new service plan.

Remaining responses, all in the low single digits of incidence, included people getting their first phone, losing their old one, or buying a phone for someone else.

Survey respondents who received the cell phone questions differ from the general population in several respects. They are more likely to be internet users than average (86% to 73%) and more likely to have broadband at home (62% to 50%). And they are slightly younger than the sample of the general population: the median age is 44 for respondents in the cell phone sample versus 45 in the general population. The racial composition of the cell phone module recipients is about the same as the general population.

As noted in the Methodology section at the end of this report, the sample for this survey included cell phone numbers. Some 129 respondents in the sample of 2,400 were cell phone users, with about half of respondents reached by cell phone reporting they use only a cell phone for telephone communication and do not have a landline phone at home. In the cell phone module, one-third of respondents were contacted on their cell phone and 6% identified themselves as “cell phone only” users.

A salesperson and a visit to a store take the prize as to how people gather information about a cell phone.

The information-gathering process involved with buying a cell phone has a number of steps and stops:

  • 59% ask an expert or a salesperson for advice.
  • 46% go to one or more cell phone stores.
  • 39% use the internet.
  • 37% ask friends, family, or co-workers.
  • 19% consult newspapers, magazines, or books.
  • 19% use the television and radio.
  • 10% use a source not mentioned.

Nearly all (93%) of cell phone shoppers sought out one of the people or sources listed above, two-thirds consulted at least two, and 41% at least three.

The 39% of those who consulted the internet before buying a cell phone took advantage of several different kinds of online resources.

How those who have bought a new cell phone in the past year use online resources to learn about the product

Some 88% of those who used the internet to investigate a cell phone purchased used at least one of the resources in the table above, and the median number of sources explored was 2.

Online information influences the brand cell buyers choose, the money they spend, and the features they choose.

Online information has meaningful impacts on purchasing decisions of those who use the internet for background research. Among the 39% of respondents in the cell phone module who use the internet for research on their cell phone buying decision:

  • 27% said that online information had a major impact on their decision.
  • 46% said it has a minor impact.
  • 27% said it had no impact at all.

When asked to focus on the importance of online versus offline sources of information in the cell phone purchase, half (49%) of this same set of online users said that online information was most important, with 46% saying something found offline was most important.

The specific impacts of online information pre-purchase unfold as follows among those who have availed themselves of the internet for their cell phone research:

  • 48% said it changed the model or brand of cell phone they bought.
  • 43% said online information led them to get a phone with more features than otherwise would have been the case.
  • 41% said online information helped them spend less on their cell phone.
  • 31% said it changed the cell phone service plan they intended to purchase.
  • 14% said it changed the phone company they planned to use.

Point of purchase

The overwhelming majority of cell phone buyers make the purchase in a store – some 78% do, with 12% buying online and 9% by some other means. Among the narrower set of those who use the internet in their cell phone research, 26% bought their device online.

Three-quarters of those who bought online could have bought their phone in a store if they had wanted.  Likewise, most (61%) who bought their phone in a store could have bought online, though nearly one-third (30%) said they could not have done that.

With the sizable influence online information exerts on 39% of cell phone purchasers, it is understandable that this group is more likely to buy their phones online. Some 26% of this group bought a cell phone online, although 70% still go down to the store.


All in all, people who have bought a cell phone in the past year come away satisfied. Fully 78% say they had the right amount of information in making their choice, with just 7% saying they had too little information and 11% too much. And 87% are satisfied with their phone and their service – 52% describing themselves as “very satisfied” and 35% as “somewhat satisfied.” About half (46%) say they have recommended to others that they buy the phone they purchased, with most of the rest (44%) saying they have offered no advice to others on whether or not to get the particular phone they bought.

87% of those who bought a cell phone in the prior year are satisfied with their phone and their service.

Those who consult the internet before purchasing report the same levels of satisfaction with their purchase compared to those who do not. A modest difference emerges when focusing on those who say they are “very satisfied” with the cell phone they bought. Some 56% of those who used the internet to do pre-purchase research were “very satisfied” with their choice and 51% who did not use the internet were “very satisfied” with their cell phone.

After they buy a phone, few internet users turn to the internet for troubleshooting, posting a rating, or sharing experiences.

Cell phones are feature-rich and reasonably complex electronic devices that often require a user to spend time with a new device to figure it out and, perhaps, to troubleshoot kinks encountered. Most people (68%) take to the owner’s manual to figure out the new device. Some people will go further, especially if they meet a problem that they can’t address themselves. Here is what cell phone buyers said they did when they encountered problems with their cell phone:

  • 23% visited a cell phone store.
  • 18% called their phone carrier.
  • 9% called the cell phone manufacturer.
  • 7% (of internet users) went online for information or help.
  • 4% discussed the cell phone in an online forum or community.

In terms of sharing general opinions about a new cell phone, most people (60%) say they have talked about a new device with friends, family, or co-workers.

The internet, however, does not play a large role in after-purchase chatter or inquiry:

  • 11% of internet users in the cell phone module looked online for information on how to use the phone.
  • 7% looked online for others’ experiences with the same phone.
  • 4% posted a rating or review of the cell phone on a website or blog.

Some 13% of internet users who got a new cell phone in the past year did at least one of the three after-purchase online chatter activities. When including post-purchase online activity relating to troubleshooting (i.e., going online for help or consulting an online forum), some 19% of internet users who bought a phone in the prior year turned to the internet after their purchase regarding something relating to it.

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