The New Mobile Reflex

There are many question marks that remain around consumer behavior this holiday shopping season. How much will we really spend during this fourth holiday in a row of economic fear and uncertainty? When will spending kick in during this cycle -- an early, drawn-out spend or a last-minute burst? How much will go online and how much will stay at bricks and mortar? And it goes on. Black Friday has become an occasion not only for loss leader sales, but for reports about how the American army of shoppers will respond to those sales.

One thing is certain this holiday, however. Mobility is about to have a profound effect on the entire retail shopping model. It’s hard to imagine more of a disruption to the brick-and-mortar world than what smartphones have done: dropped the Internet into Aisle 3. Armed with retailer apps, third-party product code scanners, a mobile search engine that is highly localized and geographically aware, the consumer now wields a weapon at least as significant in the history of retail as was the introduction of the Gatling gun in WWI. Just watch the bodies fall.



According to MSW Research, shoppers with smartphones came into the Black Friday weekend forewarned and well armed. MSW’s SurveyApp Mobile Consumer Survey of over 300 smartphone owners finds that 63% were planning on heading out for Black Friday sales this year, while another 25% were undecided. Only 12% were planning on sitting it out. As of early last week, MSW was predicting a heavy turnout for the Friday events, with almost a third willing to miss out on early special deals in order to arrive later in the day when crowds thin.

But the major behavioral change this year will be the inclusion of smartphones in the mix, with 100% of their owners expecting to bring the phone with them to help in the process. What behaviors will we be seeing in Aisle 3? According to shopper who are learning to leverage this new informational tool, 30% of them plan to use it to comparison-shop during the process. But 20% say they are planning to redeem coupons with their phones.

A critical new behavior this holiday season revolves around using the mobile phone as a scanner in-store. Apps like Red Laser (owned by eBay) and countless QR code readers can scan a UPC or QR code/Microsoft Tag on an item or a store shelf to render a wealth of information -- about competitive pricing, product specs, users reviews, etc. According to MSW’s survey of smartphone owners, 17% expect to use this functionality in their holiday shopping.

That percentage may seem small, but it is in fact a leading indicator of the role smartphones will be playing in the retail environment. As MSW’s Mobile Research Expert Edward Hunter says, “When you consider how the use of QR codes was an early-adopter behavior for consumers at the beginning of 2011, the rate of climb of this particular behavior hints at its real power in the retail marketplace.”

Mobile users have to recognize a weird and otherwise unfamiliar code, know they have an app that can handle the code, scan and send it while in the aisle, and do all of this with the expectation of getting some value in return. These are considerable hoops through which to jump, and so having 17% of smartphone owners this early in the game understanding the functionality and worth of mobile code scanning is significant.

As any good marketer knows, changing consumer behavior patterns is not nearly as easy as legend would have it. Even a technology as compelling as the PC had a decades-long climb to critical mass through the 1980s and 1990s. Moving the personal computer off the office desktop and into the home to become a real appliance was a long slog through slow adoption and learning curves, increased broadband penetration, reduced cost of entry, retailer, advertisers, media investment, etc. A lot of moving pieces had to come together over time for a new set of consumer shopping and research habits to evolve.

Mobile now rises in the shadow of all of those learnings, patterns, and new tech-savvy on the part of American consumers. There is a good reason why, as investment analyst Mary Meeker famously claimed, mobile technology has had an unprecedented adoption curve. Consumers had the knowledge and experience to embrace computers in their pockets, and the power and value of ubiquitous person-to-person connectivity required almost no persuasion. The value proposition of mobile platforms to consumers is that obvious. Over the past few years, from the adoption of smartphones themselves to the massive use of SMS texting, apps and the mobile Web, consumers have consistently outpaced the media , retail and marketing industries’ capacity for keeping up with new behaviors.

Anyone who is still asking whether this “will be the year of mobile” for marketers and retailers, already missed it.

1 comment about "The New Mobile Reflex".
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  1. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, November 25, 2011 at 5:09 p.m.

    And, one more thing to be thankful for this year, Steve. This excellent article.

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