May the best experience win. As retailers evolve their strategies for handling the super-informed, smartphone-wielding consumer, the best defense is a good offense. Trying to thwart the new consumer look-up habit with store-only inventory or universal pricing seems to me a defensive response that drips desperation and in some measure, scapegoating. Much like the music industry, which blamed the digital revolution and piracy for declining sales (when it always has been about bad music), some retailers want to pin their declining fortunes on “showrooming” and customer poaching.
The showrooming phenomenon -- while not new -- is surely accelerated by mobility, but it deflects attention from the fact that the retail experience at many stores just sucks. And many third parties simply beat retailers to consumers with superior shopping apps. The next logical stage of this ongoing shopper revolution will be retailers that step up and provide mobile experiences that are so much more helpful to consumers than the third parties, there is little reason for the consumer to go elsewhere. Key to this approach will be retailers actively encouraging and supporting in-store app use and then providing an infrastructure that makes it all seamless for the customer.
Last month, home products retailer Lowe’s issued the 2.0 release of its iPhone app, adding to the older shopping app much more granular control over a user’s account, their MyLowe’s loyalty card, saving of details about the consumer’s home and a handy purchase history. But the upgrade was only a consumer-facing piece of a much broader and deeper project to make the mobility a central part of the Lowe’s operation. “It’s not just about customer support and associate support,” says Sean Bartlett, director of mobile platforms and strategy. “If [mobile] is truly part of the business structure, then it is part of everything we do.”
Which means that mobile connectivity has to be considered at every point in the organization. Basic functionality needs to be assured, so Lowe’s rolled out WiFi in all of its stores. When someone uses their smartphone in-store they get on the same guest wireless network as the associates. Earlier this year, Lowe’s provided 42,000 iPhones to its in-store staff. They all now have apps that complement the ones the consumer brings into the store and work with the consumer-facing mobile experience.
But once the devices and network are in place, you need a platform whereby the consumers and their data are fluidly made a part of the in-store mobile layer. Now that the purchase history of the customer is embedded on the phone and part of their loyalty card, the associate can scan the customer’s key fob for them to rediscover what they had purchased before. The customer gets an image of their myLowe’s key fob in the app that can be scanned at any POS terminal. The associates’ app drills a little deeper into inventory for their own store and nearby stores. The app-bearing customer finds that the data embedded or put into the app is of real value here.
Bartlett says that the brand does not want to pit retail against the empowered consumer or pretend that a host of third party apps are not already being used by consumers when they come in the door. “We embrace transparency. We offer free WiFi. We offer apps. But if you come into the store, hopefully you will use the Lowe’s product. We’re not going to hide from the fact that people use information in our businesses. When it comes to the home, we feel we are in the best position to deliver that experience."
Bartlett says the Lowe’s app users self-identify as core customers. While the mobile Web site for Lowe’s gets considerable traffic via organic and paid search and direct look-ups, there is a lot of store locator activity there and basic look-ups. “If someone is making the jump from mobile Web to your, they clearly have an affinity for the brand.” If they opt-in to a MyLowe’s program, then they have a hyper-affinity. Bartlett says that early response to the MyLowe’s feature has been “fantastic.” Users are also especially keen on getting inspirational content, such as videos and how-tos.
Bartlett says that calculating the ROI on the company’s massive investment in mobile must be framed in the larger mission for the brand. And again, it needs to be seen as a game of experiences. “For the organization it is about enhancing the overall customer experience. It rings true for the space we play in. Home or home improvement is a very personal thing and sometimes involves very long decision cycles with high consideration. So the best fit is to enhance the overall experience, whether it is from inspiration or how-to videos on how to fix a broken sink we need to be there for you. It is not just self-service on the app, but also having the sales associate help you as well, whether to look up inventory or to show you a how-to. It is really about providing really compelling experiences regardless of location.”