Smartphones Are Changing Retailing

Smartphones: in store vs online shoppingAmazon began the current retailing revolution 17 years ago as an online bookseller. Today, hand-held devices are on the verge of disrupting what’s left of the in-store experience.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is tracking how our habits are changing thanks to the powerful computers in our hands. During the last holiday season, Pew reported that 38% of cellphone users called a friend about a purchasing decision, 24% used their phone to review products and 25% used their phone to compare prices, all while they were shopping in a store. Ultimately, 37% of these shoppers decided not to buy, 19% bought online and 8% went elsewhere.

Cellphone users’ behavior goes beyond bargain hunting. Mara Devitt of retail consulting firm McMillan Doolittle says, “Consumers with cellphones don’t look up. They’ll be texting a friend (who may be next to them) or obtaining information and not looking around at traditional displays and signage.”

Amazon launched its new Price Check app in December with the tagline, “Ever wonder if the ‘deals’ you see while shopping in retail stores are really deals?”  In fact, Amazon offered customers $5 off their next Amazon purchase if they simply scan in the item of their choice at the store and get an immediate price comparison. This type of “e-tailing” caused Best Buy to close 50 of its largest stores in March.

Target, JCPenney and others are fighting back. They have created mobile apps that allow shoppers to download coupons right at checkout. In addition, they’ve put the squeeze on suppliers and are considering more membership-based pricing models to better compete.

Overseas, bricks and mortar shopping may be disappearing altogether. Tesco, a retailing giant in South Korea, is using subway ads that feature photos of dozen of products along with their bar codes. While waiting for their trains, shoppers can scan the barcode, make a purchase and have the item on its way to their house.

Even so, stores are not dead, says McMillan Doolittle’s Devitt. “People need to touch some merchandise, to get out of the house, and get something now. Stores with smart people can overcome apps.”  The Apple Store is a good example.  Shoppers go there to interact with the help. And grocery chain Trader Joe’s has some great checkout people, adding value to the shopper’s experience at the store. You don’t get that on a smartphone. At least, not yet.