Mobile retail is empowering consumers, but it can be a positive tool for retailers.

When the mobile phone was invented, what retailer would have predicted it would end up posing them such a significant challenge? In the palm of their hand, a customer has the power to find out everything from product details to customer reviews to competitor pricing… all while stood in a store. Staff can no longer claim to be the ultimate product expert because customers can contradict them on their own turf.

“We are starting to see as big a change in customers’ behaviour as we did with the introduction of the internet,” says eDigitalResearch director Chris Russell.

Apps already exist that allow customers to scan barcodes to find out how much the product sells for at other stores. BT Expedite chief technology officer Steve Thomas says he is one of those customers that retailers will begin to dread because he already uses his smartphone in stores to check out the competition. But while it is a challenge for retailers, it is also an opportunity.

Opportunity knocks

Thomas says retailers need to enable staff to counteract such customers and suggests one way to do that is by transforming the smartphone or mobile device from fact checker into a mobile loyalty tool. “Turning their mobile phone into an intelligent loyalty device allows retailers to interact and to drive loyalty and footfall,” he says.

This would therefore enable retailers to have a conversation with customers, engage with them, and understand them. “You’re capturing all the information about customers that shop in the stores and able to send them targeted offers and show them you understand them and their needs,” he adds.

Colin McCaffery, director of product and innovation at mobile technology and marketing company 2ergo, agrees: “We talk about mobile retailing in terms of ways that retailers can increase footfall. Getting that mobile number is really valuable so you should be putting posters around the store, getting customers to text in for a small reward or competition offer,” he says. Thus, customers are effectively opting into a loyalty scheme and you can start sending them offers.

Relationship building is critical. Eagle Eye Solutions is providing mobile-enabled gift vouchers and coupons to retailers, including Aurora and Comet. Chief executive Steve Rothwell says: “If staff know their stuff and give me the confidence then I will buy from them. The real trick is for the retailer to know the customer and that’s where the mobile voucher and coupons come in because they allow you to get closer to your customer and start building data about them,” he says.

Simone Ranucci, chief executive and founder of online members discount club Glamoo, says mobile shifts the power of selling back to the retailer. “You can do limited time offers or high discounts connected to a specific product or promotion through acquisition marketing, which is pushed out, or you can do Sales and loyalty promotions where it’s a lower discount and a pull mechanism, so users are coming in store to see what offer is available,” he says.

Location marketing allows the opportunity for better targeting through mobile, too. Thomas says: “It could be that I put something in my basket online last night but didn’t buy it and I walk past the store and it offers me the chance to buy it at a discount.”

And this is where the real opportunity of mobile retailing lies - putting the control of selling what, when and where into the hands of the retailer. Done well, you can use it to bring customers into your store when you want, buying what you want and you can cross-sell to them, too.

Another advantage is the fact-checking capability of such devices. Aurora senior technical development manager Andy Tudor says: “There is an opportunity to expand on product information, enabling customers to scan barcodes to find out more information.” And in the fashion retail world, that could be providing information on fashion trends. For electricals retailers, it could be extra product or warranty information or for food retailers, allergy or nutritional information.

The assisted shopper

Many retailers are also considering hitting back at the mobile threat by introducing mobile devices into stores themselves. Aurora is among those already trialling the use of mobile tablet devices to help its store staff give customers a better experience. “It’s giving staff more information to service the customer,” says Tudor. And when, through their own online research, shoppers sometimes know more about the products than the sales assistant, this is more important than ever.

Thomas adds: “With devices like the iPad, you can now have the ability to walk up and sell to customers but also look at product information, buying habits and trends. It’s about assisted service.”

BT Expedite director of store consulting Charlene Benson says the service element will be crucial in the future. “It allows retailers to differentiate on service because things like price comparison can only go so far. If store staff have the product and price

information available, they are much better placed to sell and if you have that item in stock you want to convert that sale immediately. It’s about making the process of getting that product

into the customer’s hands easier,” she says. Combining such information with single view information of transaction history and browsing habits also allows the retailer to better up-sell and cross-sell.

However, even introducing mobile tablets brings potential risks because of their desirability as an item for thieves to steal. “The big challenge is finding the right device at the right price that is fit for the retail environment,” says Benson.

There is also a danger that retailers could cut back on product training - leaving their staff to consult their tablet devices instead of knowing about the product themselves. Thomas says: “Store staff do still need to be product educated - this is just augmenting this.”

While mobile retailing may have meant power has shifted to the customer, store staff must still retain control and have a vital part to play. Envision Retail chief executive Jason Kemp says. “It’s changing the dynamic of the sales process but means that in the physical store, retailers need to focus on what their point of difference is. This is about the assisted shopper - enabling your sales staff to go in and close the deal rather than go through a lengthy qualification process,” he says.

“It’s about immediate consumption,” he adds. “The need for staff knowledge and interaction may be somewhat lower so it’s about availability andservice.”

However, the answer to the dilemma does not lie in simply instructing staff to whip out a tablet or mobile because the customer has. “When the customer already has that information in front of them is where the two are doing battle with each other,” says Kemp.

The true advent of mobile retailing may seem as big a threat to stores as the internet was, but this should not be the case. As McCaffery says: “The fixed internet was disruptive to the high street, but mobile is positive because through loyalty you can drive people back into the physical stores.”