Retail Associates: All iPadded Up With Nowhere To Go?

Retailers are becoming aggressive about improving the in-store experience and leveraging technology to get there. Or at least that is the line we get from the trade press and all of those wonderful demos at the retail trade shows. Until you actually start walking into stores and asking how and where things have gotten any better. Getting much WiFi in there? Is the branded app designed to enhance the in-store experience? Does your sales associate even know what their own mobile app looks like?

And if you look at the latest survey of over 60 major brands from retail analytics company EKN, it looks as if there is a lot of investment in tech coming, even if the goals for it may be narrow or shortsighted or just unclear. Granted, the sample set here is limited, but it does represent a fair cross-section of categories. The full report is available online.

To wit, the EKN survey finds that many retailers -- 71%, in fact -- plan to give their store associates mobile or tablet devices in-store by 2015, while 62% will have a mobile point-of-sale tool as well -- and yet the overwhelming focus of these tech tools is to improve back-office efficiency and only indirectly address consumer needs. When asked what functions these sales associates either already can or would be able to access, the most popular feature was the ability to receive shipments, followed by tracking inventory and orders.



Arguably, this makes some sense if the goal is to keep associates on the sales floor, out of back rooms and more closely engaged with customers. But when asked what kinds of interactions the associates might have with customers that also leverage the devices, the answers were unenthusiastic at best. Only about 45% expect to even allow their people to use the devices to access competitive pricing information, 58% to look up a customer profile and 50% to give a customer personalized recommendations. And near or clear majorities of retailers surveyed (over 60 in all) had no plans to empower associates with recommendation engines or pricing info.

As EKN wisely observes in the report and recommendations: “Delivering back-office functions on the mobile device is important as it will drive the justification for continued investments in store mobility, but it will soon be the lowest common denominator as far as store associate mobility is concerned.”

Stores need to use the in-store mobile technology to beat consumer frustration with waiting lines and out-of-stock items, pricing questions, etc.

For consumers, the state of mobile technology as an enhancement for the live experience is sad at best. Only 13% of respondents said their mobile app currently has features that can enhance the shopping experience in-store. But don’t worry -- another 25% say they will have such features in the next year.

The obsessive focus of retail apps and sites now is product information (80%), because only a third of retailers say their apps allow users to access a shopping list or even look up inventory. Little more than a quarter allow the user to call customer service. Only 19% allow them to compare prices with competitors, and a scant 13% even allow the mobile user to arrange to pick up a product.

But here is the stat that telegraphs retailers’ lingering ambivalence about the mobile shopper. Only 22% currently offer free WiFi to customers, and 42% don’t plan to do so at all.

As convenient as e/m-commerce may become in many categories and in some instances, Americans love to shop. Brick and mortar is not going away because it is a core social experience and a test of mettle. In other nations, shopping is a casual pleasure and an important ritual. But here in the epicenter of materialism, we aren’t amateur consumers; we are professionals. Mobility offers retail an opportunity to merge two things Americans love -- live shopping and their mobile devices. At their heart, these stats suggest retailers still haven’t figured out whether mobility among consumers is friend or foe. 

7 comments about "Retail Associates: All iPadded Up With Nowhere To Go?".
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  1. Gene Keenan from TCF, July 9, 2013 at 12:27 p.m.

    This points to a couple of things Steve. Lack of understanding of mobile as a platform instead of a channel. Meaning they are still treating it as a discrete channel like TV, Print, etc. This explains the lack of synergies between other consumer touch points (e.g. wifi, augmenting in-store experience, etc.. The friend or foe question is interesting. Why can't these retailers realize the phone = the customer? Treat the phone badly and you treat the customer badly. It's really THAT SIMPLE. And the second thing: Bad strategy. These retailers are employing a back office forward strategy (treating the phone badly) instead of a customer or shelf back planning strategy (loving the phone). Very sad. All of this stuff is basic blocking and tackling but apparently this is still a hard thing to do.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, July 9, 2013 at 12:57 p.m.

    @Gene - What a great construction - phone=customer. Treat the phone badly = treat the customer badly.

  3. Taylor Wray from Kantar Retail, July 9, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.

    Offering mobile POS capability would literally shorten the physical path to purchase (no more walking the goods to the checkout counter) while eliminating shoppers' number-one pain point at many retailers: waiting in line.

    Remaining challenge: How would store staff be able to bag up purchased goods while standing in random locations around the store? Perhaps they all need superhero-style utility belts...

  4. Steve Smith from Mediapost, July 9, 2013 at 3:39 p.m.

    @Taylor. Good point. At Apple Stores every associate is a POS now I believe and when they ask you if you want a bag they run back tot he Genius bar to get one. There are still enough clerk stations at mos stores to make distributing bag easy enough. But I think if shoppers knew that any one with a branded shirt in the store could both advise and check them out, overall engagement with salespeople would be more frequent and deeper.

  5. Gene Keenan from TCF, July 9, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.

    @Taylor Where is the challenge? Apple does just fine. An obvious solution is to have very small side station stands around the store that contain bags or incorporate holders into existing displays. Not unlike what you see in some stores now for shoppers to hold things while they shop.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 9, 2013 at 5:56 p.m.

    1. $7.25/hr clerks = revolving door employment = missing pads. 2. Not all purchases are small enough to be bagged on the floor and others small enough to walk away.3. $7.25/ hr with no where to go. 4. 1,2,3 to solve first.

  7. Amy Do from SPARK, July 9, 2013 at 8:05 p.m.

    Only one retailer has integrated technology well in my mind - Nordstrom. As a consumer, shopping has been simplified - on their app, online and in their store. They recognize consumers have options and they try to make it as seamless as possible for me to open my checkbook.

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