During the last decade of covering behavioral targeting online I have seen piles and piles of data mined from peoples' digital travels. The digital universe has helped surface countless audience affinities and statistical correlations that many of us never suspected. But there are some consumer behaviors that require no sophisticated data queries or cookie-dropping. They are as obvious as they are, alas, under-utilized. To wit: walk through the aisles of any grocery, big box, apparel or media retailer and count how many people are on their cell phones. Amazing, isn't it?
The statistics bear this out. When InsightExpress did its most recent study of mobile usage related to retail, they found that 82% of respondents say they have used their cell phones in a store. Head researcher Joy Liuzzo of InsightExpress told me "Each time I mention how many people are using their phone in store, retailers do a little jerk back." As well they should. Talk about unrequited consumer behaviors.
For at least a decade now consumers have been calling home for shopping advice from the aisles. In recent years they have been directing their smartphone browsers to Web sites for product information when they can't find a salesperson to help. They have been texting friends and family at other stores to check prices there. And after all of this, only a handful of retailers even have usable mobile Web sites let alone mobile apps and program tuned to their own customers' behaviors.
To drill further into these numbers, 36% of the people InsightExpress surveyed said they had used the phone to call another person about a product. In fact, half of women aged 18-34 do this. Among smartphone owners 27% have snapped a picture of a product to send to someone and 19% have searched for product reviews on their smart phone. Even otherwise obscure and geeky mobile behaviors are moving the statistical needle. Ten percent of smart phone owners have used their phones to scan a bar code, for lands sake. In other words, in a time of reduced sales staffs, twenty-something clerks who are more concerned with tweeting than helping customers, and an overwhelming number of product choices, people are turning to their cell phones for sales help.
A few retailers are catching on. At last week's Mediapost Mobile Insider Summit, Steve Madden's head of ecommerce Drew Koven outlined an ambitious plan for leveraging the phone for consumers. Users of the mobile Web site (just navigate to SteveMadden.com on any mobile browser) already are able to view much of the available Madden inventory, track orders, get free shipping, and even pre-order items that aren't yet in the store. Madden is going for maximum reach by focusing on the mobile Web, but its mobile site is among the most sophisticated and absorbing I have seen from a major retailer.
Best Buy is another retailer to watch in this category. Its iPhone app is a superb in-aisle accompaniment for the smart shopper. It pulls in product specs and user reviews and even has a built-in bar code reader for calling up an item's info with the snap of the phone cam. Best Buy is following its own user base's behaviors in developing a smart phone app. According to the InsightExpress survey 53% of male shoppers have a smart phone and 30% shop in electronics stores.
At last week's Summit, almost everyone reiterated the theme of having to follow your target consumer's specific mobile behaviors in order to understand how best to serve them with these devices. In the last year, mobile apps like Foursquare and the more recent ShopKick have tried to make a game of having users "check-in" when they arrive at a location. These location-based services are trying to spin out marvelous plans for novel retail marketing partnerships.
Personally, I have never found this check-in activity especially compelling, nor am I convinced it will be the bedrock of new ways to activate local marketing. I was heartened to hear from our panel of retail marketers at the Summit that most of them also are skeptical of this model. Checking in by cell phone at a store is a new and unnatural behavior. It is a mistake to base business models and marketing techniques on forcing people to learn new behaviors. A year ago Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker declared that mobile devices constituted the next great computing platform, destined to outstrip the Web as we know it in popularity and importance. This growth is being fueled by consumers who have embraced this generation of mobile devices faster than they have adopted any previous class of electronics. The consumers and their behaviors are leading the way on this, not device manufacturers or the clever kids in Silicon Valley start ups. The opportunity here is staggering and obvious to serve customers with information at their greatest point of need. They are in the store aisles, waving their cell phones and asking for assistance.