Commentary

Google Study Claims Massive M-Shopping Impact

Those who are skeptical about the breadth and depth of mobile migration often dismiss claims about the power of smartphones and the showroom effect at retail. They claim to see only scattered and occasional instances of people using their smartphones as shopping tools in the aisles.

Well, those skeptics will really dislike Google’s latest research release. This morning the search engine issues a massive study of smartphone users and their mobile shopping habits. The study says that 62% of smartphone owners use their device to help them with shopping at least once a month or more, and 17% are hardcore, using mobile for shopping at least once a week. And among those who do use their smartphones to help with shopping, 84% are doing so in the store.

The phenomenon cuts across virtually all product categories and retail situations, and shows that on average these in-store mobile-assisted shoppers are using their device 15 minutes or more per visit. Nevertheless, retailers should not fear the showroom, because the shoppers who are the most frequent users of smartphones say they actually are buying more goods per shopping trip then are standard smartphone shoppers. In fact, in the health and beauty category, the median basket size is 50% larger for the hardcore mobile shopper, and 40% larger in the appliances category.

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Not surprisingly, the smartphone may also be changing the relationship between the shopper and in-store service. For instance, in the appliances category, 55% of smartphone shoppers say they have used their device in-store rather than consult a salesperson -- and even in the baby care and household care categories, 40% and 39%, respectively, say they have used devices to circumvent the help.

Principal in-store mobile use does shift according to category. While price comparisons were important to only 36% of grocery shoppers and 44% of apparel shoppers, finding the best price was important to 74% who were shopping in the appliances category, 70% in electronics, and even 62% in baby care.

Indeed, there is an important diversity in use cases and functionality according to category. For instance, in the electronics segment, 70% of mobile shoppers are checking price, 51% are just browsing products, 45% are looking for product reviews, 45% are looking for hours, 42% are looking up product information, 42% are finding locations and directions, 40% are hunting for promotional offers, 35% are finding where products are sold, and 32% are checking store availability of products.

Compare this to the use of mobile phones in shopping for household care products -- where 58% are looking for price comparisons, 41% for location or directions, 36% are simply browsing on their phones, 34% are looking for promotional offers, and 32% are looking for product information. Clearly, shoppers who are hunting for various segments are in fact also using mobile differently and in different modes that require sometimes vastly different feature sets.

Google is happy to emphasize that 82% of people who are researching products in-store say they are starting with a search engine over other sources, such as store Web sites (62%), brand Web sites (50%), store apps (21%), and deal Web sites (20%). And by a 65% to 35% margin, mobile shoppers in-store say they prefer using mobile sites over apps.

The survey was conducted in the fourth quarter of 2012 among 1507 smartphone owners who use their devices for shopping. To be sure, it is not surprising that a Google-sponsored study tends to find and emphasize the importance of mobile search and mobile Web to the shopping experience. Actually, I am struck by the relatively high share of people who actually are using branded store apps, considering that this indicates some degree of brand awareness and loyalty to begin with. And most retailers of some mobile maturity understand that the audiences and use cases are somewhat different between the mobile Web, which is more about discovery, and branded apps, which will focus on the brand loyalists were drilling very deep in their research.

Nevertheless, there is an interesting divide suggested here between a mobile Web that Google is suggesting to be more of a reflex for shoppers and simply to have a greater power for discovery versus the more closed system represented by the mobile app. And it almost goes without saying that Google is not asking the question about which mobile operating system -- Android or iOS -- predominates.

And it is also important to emphasize that the overwhelming majority of those defined in this study as “mobile shoppers” have said simply that they have used the smartphone to help with shopping at least once a month. Only 17% are admitting to making a weekly habit of it. What percentage of people you think would say that they search at least once a week on the desktop browser about a product or store? As with any emerging media activity, it is the transition from fascination to ritual and habitual use that really makes the biggest difference.

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