Turn On, Dial In, Drop Out

The race to the mobile marketplace is on

Turn On, Dial In, Drop OutAt retailer-X, a sales associate sees a customer walking between two shiny new products. Seeing a potential sale, the associate bounds up to the customer to offer assistance. As soon as the offer for help escapes his lips, the associate sees the customer is holding a smartphone lovingly, and immediately regrets the utterance. Each product feature suggested faces an in-depth counterpoint referenced in a review that's been voted far more helpful than the sales associate ever will be. The store's discounted sale is undercut by several online retailers, who now seem to sell everything. The customer ends up buying the product online right before the associate's eyes, using a one-click purchase from Google Checkout.

The aforementioned scenario shouldn't seem alien or futuristic - it's happening today and has been for about 18 months now. As far back as three years ago, there were stories of customers pulling up Circuit City's Web site after finding an item in-store, buying the item for a discounted "online rate," and ordering in-store pickup at the location at which they were first shopping. What's changed is the scale.

According to a recent Forbes Insights study, 73 percent of surveyed retail executives reported having adopted some sort of mobile initiative. This is appropriate, considering that consumer expectations for mobile as a shopping resource is on the rise. Even for seemingly low consideration grocery shopping, a Latitude study had 30 percent of respondents suggesting mobile as a source for additional information. If that 30 percent figure looks familiar, it should. It's also the percent of U.S. wireless subscribers that use smartphones.

A Nielsen report estimates smartphones will outnumber the less-aptly named "feature phones" by 2011. Also consider that RIM's majority smartphone stake is about to get much smarter with BlackBerry OS 6.0, and that Verizon will have a 4G network covering 100 million people in the United States by the end of this year. If these sound like major changes to the mobile industry, that's because they are. And therein lies the problem.

Back in the caterpillar stage, mobile was kind of clumsy and ugly, though effective for a one-off or an on-pack texting campaign. The butterfly stage on the horizon is extremely promising, when the majority of customers will all have access to information-saturated rich media at the drop of a dime. In the meantime, we're stuck marketing to the chrysalis.

This puts retailers in a tough position: To take full advantage of the potential that mobile presents, infrastructural changes need to take place. Stores need to be mapped, inventory needs to be centrally tracked, and all of this needs to be organized in an intuitive, online accessible Web app. At least, that would be the prescription today. With how rapidly things change, and the permanence of implementation across physical locations, retailers would be taking a risk to wholeheartedly embrace the butterfly while it sits inside the chrysalis.

Which is why the real responsibility for a mobile-savvy shopping experience rests on the brands. Brands for 20 years have complained about the difficulty in working with retailers in selling their products. It is a logistical and political nightmare for a brand to change the interior of the store in the slightest way to sell more product. Now they have the chance to circumvent the retailer, using product packaging, mobile apps, and mobile-friendly Web pages.

Of course, this is simpler said than done. CPG brands face the same challenge every mobile marketer faces today - they are thinking of themselves as "mobile marketers." The future of mobile is an online experience as rich and in-depth as the PC experience is today. Internally, the preparation for smartphone-savvy consumers needs to happen across the entire online presence for the brand. Assets need to be formatted for mobile screens (both in portrait and landscape modes) across devices. Location, when appropriate, needs to be taken into consideration.

As savvy brands embrace the next generation of mobile-savvy online marketing, the wireless market will evolve with them. Eventually, we will have arrived fully at the next phase of personal computing and retailers will be able to make wide-sweeping changes to their infrastructure safely. It's less than five years off, but in the meantime the mobile initiatives adopted by retail brands will (and are) paving the way for a mobile-empowered and brand-informed consumer.

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