It's still an open question how much in-store use of smartphones is going on. I know, I know. We all see survey stats that would make you think shopping is now a two-screen experience on par with tablet-gazing during prime time. But personally and anecdotally, that is not the reality when most of us walk into a store. We ourselves may, from time to time, whip out a smartphone, do a product lookup or snap an image for later, but most us aren’t seeing people walking the aisles of Best Buy or Macy’s nose down in their smartphones, aiming the cell phone cameras at every shelf -- or even any shelf.
Which is not to say that in-store mobile activity does not happen. It does. Each of us does it. But it is important to keep in mind the difference between retail browsing and mobile activity. People like to shop, browse shelves, scan layouts, discover niches of new displays, walk malls, and be overwhelmed by variety.
Shopping matters. It is a distinct mode of activity that is not the same as a mobile product lookup. A person who does engage their phone as a part of shopping activity is breaking one mode to enter another. They may be complementary, but they are different. I think as we take mobile devices out into the wild of analog experiences this is something to keep in mind. We can’t just say that people once a month consult their cell phone in a store. We need to better understand what moves a shopper from analog to digital mode in a store. Is it a question not answered? Sticker shock at a price? Wondering if this product really is the right choice?
I say all of this because in urging retailers to leverage devices to enhance and enrich the in-store experience, we need to recognize some inherent hurdles here. Whether, when and how people want or need a shopping experience augmented is not clear. As in all things mobile, we probably should begin with people’s behaviors rather than our fantasies of how we want people to use mobile in-store.
That is why I look forward to some of the first reports from the Swirl app tests in premium retailers in New York and Boston. About nine locations including Kenneth Cole, Timberland and Alice and Ani stores will be experimenting with an indoor Bluetooth broadcasting system that will engage opted-in customers as they enter the store with mobile content.
Bluetooth sensors can be placed throughout the store, and with broadcast ranges from 6 to 600 feet. Theoretically, sensors can detect and communicate with a user throughout the store or with specific engagements in front of or near certain sections of the store.
According to Swirl VP of Marketing Rob Murphy, they find that about half of current phones already have Bluetooth turned on and can receive messages. In the case of Swirl, however, signaling an arriving customer requires that the person already has the Swirl app installed and had opted in to such messaging from specific retailers.
Swirl has followed a smart startup strategy in that it did not approach retailers cold with a plan to mobilize their stores with another geolocation scheme to push coupons. They spent time building a shopping app that aggregated information from over 200 retailers and amassed a following after hundreds of thousands of downloads. It was only after building some scale as a shopping tool that Swirl approached retailers about customizing the content for a store experience.
And the pitch is not just to push offers. What is interesting about the Swirl model is its reliance on content -- not just coupons. “We have our own editorial and curation team identifying trends and putting content in,” he says. “When we get to the store level we work with the retailers,” he says. The app offers up three hot product trends that the incoming shopper might want to pursue while here and offers up products in store that help them achieve that look. “It is like a mobile version of the mannequins in the store,” he says.
The trial only began in May, so returns are anecdotal and involve that still small cross-section of store shoppers and Swirl app users.
But Murphy says some feedback from consumers has already been very encouraging.
“The push notifications get very impressive open rates,” he says. “It is significantly higher than any other channel the retailer has.” From consumers they are seeing two things. First, the customer finds it fun that the app knows they are in the store itself. There is a shock of delight that the phone is activated to help them and that it is relevant. He contrasts this to some geofencing attempts to guess a user’s intent or corral the user nearby. “In this case I know you are interested in shopping because you just walked in the door of the store.”
Consumers also commented that they liked the automated nature of the process. They didn’t have to remember they had an app that could augment their in-store shopping experience.
For now the stores are only doing initial tests that generally involve single sensors and messages at the door. Conceivably, much more precise message targeting can take place in different places. The system can even know when a customer is spending prolonged periods in some sections so that they could be messaged later and more specifically about their interests.
The Swirl system will go national with some retailers in the fall. The platform will also soon evolve to allow retailers themselves to craft and enter new content for distribution at stores.
And here is the rub. What sort of automated assistant does the modern shopper want? Where does augmentation start and stop and distracting irritant begin? The initial behaviors that we do see associated with in-store mobile use have tended to be as extensions of the Web -- product lookups and price comparisons as well as mobile couponing. In order to move to the next level of mobile engagement at retail, we need to move beyond the knee-jerk direct offer. It will be interesting to see how consumers respond to mobile content that is specifically designed to speak to an in-store experience.
But of course, the first step is determining how much the consumers really wants their phone to be a private in-store shopping assistant.