Tablets Evolving Into Our 'Transaction Screen'

It is almost exactly three years since Steve Jobs told us on January 27, 2010 that he and Apple thought they might be on to something with the iPad. Yeah, just a bit. Only three years into its short life the tablet platform now boasts over 200 million units shipped worldwide, according to ABI Research. The company just this week projected that 1 billion more tablets will ship in the next five years.

The unprecedented rate of adoption for the tablet platforms, impressive as it is, still needs to deal with some basic realities of human behavior and adaptation. Patterns of activity have emerged for the tablets, but we still are at the stage where we are seeing a migration of habits from the PC in much the same way we saw them occur on mobile phones. “It is hard to say that the tablet has formed distinct behavior, where people will only use a tablet,” says Jeff Orr, Mobile Devices Senior Practice Director for ABI. “The first applications we see move from PC to tablet are the same that moved to the smartphone -- basic messaging, email and then the social network pieces.” When it comes to longer-form media consumption and video gaming, people are tending to the tablet when they have a choice of screens, he says.

The patterns that is emerging is the transactional piece, however. ABI’s most recent research shows that 22% of tablet owners spend $50 or more a month via their tablets and 9% spend $100 or more a month. That number includes all manner of spend, from e-commerce purchases at retail sites to in-app and paid app content. The contrast to smartphones is striking, with only 14% saying they spend $50 or more from their mobile device.

Orr confirms the growing conviction that smartphones and tablets are fundamentally different devices, not only in shape, size and use case but even in our relationship to them. People have truly intimate relationships with their smartphone. “They say they will never leave home without it.” They even report feelings of withdrawal from leaving their phones at home.

“With tablets the highest response is that people see it as a hub for entertainment,” says Orr. People are willing to engage more with audio and video. But there is very little sign that the tablets are leaving the house at all. In fact, 90% of use appears to be occurring in the home, and so far the introduction of smaller sized tablets like the iPad Mini, Kindle HD and Nexus 7 is not changing that. Orr says that while smartphones are always with you, “the tablet and the pet stay home.”

This also means that so far the tablet is not showing an effect directly on brick-and-mortar retail. Among the slide of tablet owners who are taking the device out and about, Orr says there is scant evidence of the showrooming effect. “When we ask specifically about whether they bypass the purchase lane, there is not a lot of take-up of that concept yet."

It is an interesting prospect that tablets might make it out of the home. So far consumers are not showing a need for adding cellular connectivity to their tablets, Orr finds. They are happy letting them remain WiFi devices. What will be interesting to me is if retailers take better advantage of the tablet at retail just as they should be doing with smartphones by providing and promoting free WiFi access in-store. As Starbucks already learned, you can provide a WiFi gateway for customers as a way of capturing them and promoting one’s own offers.

Retailers have the opportunity to make their stores their own wireless domain. A WiFi gateway should be an opportunity for the retailer to promote their own apps, move people to their Web sites -- do anything to ensure that even if a customer is showrooming the store has the opportunity to finalize the sale elsewhere. The wireless ether should be considered part of brick-and-mortar real estate, perhaps more important than end caps and shelf placement. Portable screens should be a part of a store’s merchandising space -- the bigger the better. 

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