Trying To Get The Mobile Signal At Retail

"You ran over your power cord with the lawn mower? How did you do that?"

This was a rhetorical question, by the way. My partner knows full well that when it comes to any domestic homeowner duties there are scores of ways I can find to short-circuit an entire house, ignite hand mitts into forest-fire-sized flames, send overhead light fixtures sailing into Christmas trees, etc. I have done them all. Severing an outdoor extension cord with my power mower -- child's play for me. I got off easy this time. Usually I kill the mower itself. I think I am on my fifth in as many years in the current house.

"Well, I guess we just have to go to Home Depot."


She lives for home repair. Home Depot is her haven. For me -- hell. No offense to the good people at Home Depot, but every aisle of obscure connectors and switches and fittings, every ambitious fixer-upper offering advice, just underscores my legendary incompetence as a homeowner.



"Don't insult anyone," she warns as we enter. She knows I am brimming with loathing. The deal was, we would go to Home Depot if we could also use the occasion to play with some of the various mobile apps that retailers are issuing to make shopping easier. In fact Home Depot has an app that lets you browse its online inventory and tells you which items are sold at your local store. The weekly circular for your area is nicely parsed into product categories so you can see the specials, and you can create a shopping list beforehand.

Home Depot is somehow between first- and second-generation mobile retail app. It has a pleasant interface at first, but its in-store utility diminishes quickly as you realize it has no product reviews, scant product specs and little to make your shopping experience much better.

This is where a bit of marketer self-assessment would come in handy. Home Depot is a massive store whose organization challenges even denizens like my partner. This place desperately needs an app with a store map and product locator. Instead it has tools of limited use -- like check boxes on your shopping list, and more than a dozen how-to videos that seem out of place and random in this context.

On the other hand, Target's iPhone app is reaching much higher. This is among the most full-featured mobile extensions of a retail presence I have seen. The app has a bar code scanner for in-store product look-ups. It can tell you whether items are in-store and even what aisle number they occupy (very nice and necessary). It has registries built in, as well as sign-ups for mobile couponing that let users set the time of day they want them sent. Also friendly for regular Target shoppers is a set of "daily deals" they can see on their phones when entering the door. Target has an equally strong mobile Web site.

Target has done a good job of properly prioritizing the feature set to recognize the shopper's needs. Having shopping lists and registries topmost is smart, as is a built-in gift card tool that lets you check balances and even put your gift card into your phone for in-store use. Interestingly, the original Target iPhone app I reviewed almost two years ago was a simple gift finder. That functionality is now far down the menu tree.

The fact that Target's app is substantially different from Best Buy's, but that both are very strong, reflects the evolution of the form. Now we have retailers thinking harder about how an app design has to map against the specific shopping needs of their customers. Going to Target, with its varied product choice, requires lists, and the experience favors impulse buys via daily deals. Best Buy's app is aimed at shoppers who are researching both before they come, as well in-store.

Best Buy is engaged in a major mobile push. The app has a QR code reader that works with the icons that now sit on the shelf next to most items I saw in the store this weekend. Large standups throughout the store explain what the funny-looking badges are on most items.

The coolest functionality of the iPhone app is its product comparison tools. You snap multiple products in a category and the app arranges their specs in parallel so you can scroll through point-by-point comparisons. And Best Buy has been building its database of online reviews, so you get rich user-gen content.

At the forward-leaning edges of mobile, select retailers are getting it and exploiting the incredible promise of in-store mobile functionality. One problem they may not have seen coming, however, was in-store reception.

"Maybe you are holding it wrong," my partner chides as the iPhone apps in every store churn and churn to load pages.

"Thank you, dear, but this is one thing I am competent at," I say -- although I check to see that my left thumb hasn't crept down to the antenna-notch-of-doom on the iPhone 4. And you can't blame AT&T for this one, as its coverage in my vicinity is actually stronger than I usually get from Verizon.

But the cavernous, steel-girded warehouses of these stores simply kills a cell phone signal. Get midway into Best Buy, or even a fraction of the way into that airplane hanger of a Home Depot outlet, and you may as well forget your fancy app. Before these chains invest in the next iteration of their mobile strategy, they may want to provision some femtocells. No, really, this proved to be an issue in almost every store in which I have tried to test their mobile extensions.

But my partner couldn't be more self-satisfied. Yeah, I'll say it for her.

Looks like my cool app just ran over its own cord.

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