Retailers Are Still Back On The Desktop

Sometimes using your own family for industry research can muddy the emotional waters a bit too much. As longtime readers of this column know, my daughter, partner, and even my friends and parents get pulled into my little obsessive vortex of deliberately unscientific inquiry about mobile habits. In most families, dinnertime can be touchy, but at Chez Smith, Dad's version of chit-chat can test everyone's nerves. I am told that my grilling over SMS usage, favorite new app downloads, shifting to mobile IM, etc. is not always welcome.


"OK, you know I am your daughter, not a focus group, right?" my daughter snaps from behind her forkful of veggie burgers. "Maybe I just don't feel like being in your column this week." Teenagers! They never want to go anywhere with their parents... even into a column.

"You could ask her about how the college applications are going," my partner chimes in, subtly letting me know that if I persist it will be two women against one Dad. I have done this math before, and it never works out for me.

But lo and behold, it turns out that I am becoming my own best focus group. According to Compete's latest survey of smart phone use in the retail setting, I am pretty much the ideal consumer. Compete polled almost 2,000 smart phone owners about a dozen types of retail-related interactions with their phones. Not only have I participated in ten of the 12, but I have done so in the past month as part of my holiday shopping.

The two most popular retail-oriented uses of smart phones are looking up shipping information for items a user may order online (68% of users) and looking up the address or store hours of a store (68%). Among m-commerce apps, Amazon offered the best experience bar none for me. Not only could I track my incoming gift orders but I got SMS alerts when the package was on the truck to be delivered. I was using mobile Web sites and retailer apps throughout December to check store hours, although few of the mobile sites were updated with special holiday times.

One of the things I did notice in both using store finders and checking in-store pick-up (used by 40% of smart phone owners) is how quickly I identified which retail mobile apps and sites were easy to use. The Blockbuster app was able to tell me what titles were available at which nearby stores, or it could just kick the title onto my mail-order rental queue... all in a couple of clicks.

What this tells me is that retailers need to make a good first impression right out of the gate. I knew that Fandango could get me a nearby movie time and even order some tickets, but its click-path was often awkward and its ticket ordering coverage is limited. This sent me back to the Web often -- or to rival Moviefone more often than not. The seamlessness of a mobile experience gets emblazoned in one's mind pretty fast, and you quickly look for the straightest line to get what you want.

According to Compete, 52% of smart phone users are looking up product descriptions and 45% are consulting product reviews in-store. This should be a call to action for retailers. We were shopping for a carpet cleaner in Best Buy. But the Best Buy iPhone app is more interested in marketing its deals out-of-store than getting me a quick path to more detail about the product in front of me on the shelf. There is a search box for an sku in the app, but why bother with that when an Amazon image scan or a bar code scan with the RedLaser app can deliver a ton of information without typing?

In the case of the otherwise superb Amazon app, however, its image recognition technology does not deliver immediate results. So, again, my mobile adaptive brain is starting to tell me where to go first on my phone for in-store information. But the real point is that the retailer should own the mobile experience when in-store. On my visits to several retailers throughout the season, I saw many people standing at store shelves with a tell-tale tick: head bouncing between mobile input and store shelf, obviously using their phone to look up something related to the product at hand.

I think the smart phone stats Compete and others are serving up during this week of the Consumer Electronics Show should send merchants sprinting to their developers. Most of the mobile retail apps I used this holiday were treating me as if I were simply at a Web site. They were porting an old desktop mentality to mobile. What most of these apps needed was a single button at startup that asked, "Are You in Our Store?" At that point the interface could change entirely to surface all of the product scanning tools, inventory checks, coupons, blue-light specials, store maps, etc. that can capture all of that wireless activity that is already going on in their stores. The problem is that most of the mobile look-ups I was doing in all of these stores, even ones with their own mobile apps, was with another retailer.

"That's a lot to spend on a book," my daughter says as we look at a coffee table tome we are considering for her grandfather. I hand her my phone and tell her to look it up on Amazon to see if we can get it cheaper. She hesitates.

"This is a test, right? You're just going to write about it, especially if I screw it up."

"No, really, try it out."

"Sometimes I wish you were just a banker like Mom. She never pulls stuff like this on me."

5 comments about "Retailers Are Still Back On The Desktop".
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  1. Kat Gordon from Maternal Instinct, January 5, 2010 at 5:22 p.m.

    Smart post, Steve. I especially like your noting that most mobile retail apps treat customers as if they were at a Web site. Remember back in the infancy of the Internet when web sites treated consumers like they were holding a direct mail piece? I wonder what the next evolution will be to make us bemoan the fact that companies are still treating us like we're using our mobiles.

  2. Nathan Krug from, January 5, 2010 at 7:42 p.m.

    I think mobile shopping will gain popularity in 2010.

  3. Pat Mcgraw from [mcgraw | marketing], January 6, 2010 at 8:18 a.m.

    Great post, Steve...the "Are you in our store" question is excellent. You're dead on with the assumption that the smartphone is just another hunk of technology that allows us to access the web and the website.

    Perhaps someone will match GPS technology with an app and your shopping history so you get special offers as you walk through the store? Maybe even showing you that the offer beats other stores pricing and/or availability (in-stock/out-of-stock)?

    Make it fun - like foursquare - and you might have something worth putting on the phone!


  4. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp., January 6, 2010 at 10:53 a.m.

    I think mobile shopping is a less inherent behavior because it's rooted in activities that are predominantly related to the middle or end of the buying cycle - the parts of the cycle that are hard to influence via mobile depending on the tech savvy of the consumer in question. "Are you in our store?" is a more relevant question than "what are you looking for?" I don't think 2010 is the year for mobile shopping, but definitely the year consumers make last minute impulse purchases via iphone or nexus one. Think search beahvior - on desktops we're initiating the conversation with brands by showing interest in a product. On the phone, you're less inclined to show interest in a product, and more apt to do some last minute research. (You are after all, at the mall already right? You're probably going to buy something if you made the effort to get to Best Buy or Wal Mart.)

  5. Michael Dirmeikis from SMS Text Marketing, January 7, 2010 at 6:13 p.m.

    We've seen applications that really leverage the fact that one is in-store. There's some movement in the U.S. supermarket industry with apps that will use Blue Tooth triangulation to determine a customer's location at a specific aisle. Working with that store's planogram, which identifies product location, special offers are presented to the customer. This is the holy grail for supermarkets - to be able to influence purchase at the exact time AND place. These apps would then go a step further, and transmit the offer information directly to POS, where discounts are applied as the customer checks out.

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