The notion that mobile devices are changing the landscape is as obvious as a Black Friday ad campaign – everybody knows about it. What's lost on many retailers is the "how" element. How can you take advantage of mobile technologies to improve customer experience and increase revenue?
While the answer to that question will vary by industry, we've identified 10 mobile device trends that are shaking up the retail landscape. The following innovations aren't just changing how customers shop; they're also changing how retailers attract new audiences and maintain loyalty.
1. Location-based in-store marketing
It's now possible to send customers location-based marketing messages via technologies like iBeacons. These innovations allow you to detect a customer's precise location as he or she browses your store. You can send custom messages, coupons, or product-related alerts straight to the customer's phone.
2. Mobile wallets
Although it may be awhile before phones entirely replace wallets at the checkout counter, mobile wallet use is on the rise and major players like Google and PayPal are throwing lots of cash and R&D at the opportunity.
Apple recently entered the fray as well, pushing its Apple Pay technology, which lets you complete a purchase without even opening an app. Silicon Valley appears to be "all in" on the mobile wallet idea, and it may not be long before paying with your phone becomes the norm.
3. Brand experiences
Many retailers are encouraging consumers to engage in recurring, app-driven brand experiences, when a brand offers it. Bicycle retailers, for instance, are showing customers apps like Garmin Connect, which lets cyclists view and share data from on and off-road adventures on their phones. Another example is Oakley, whose mobile app updates surfers on the daily swell.
Some retailers are even getting into the game themselves. REI offers a snow report app, which shows users where they should (and shouldn't) try to ski based on temperature and snowfall forecasts. The idea behind app-based brand experiences is to build trust and loyalty by providing valuable information.
4. Smarter site visits
Most retailers still use spreadsheets and even paper-based methodologies to document performance-related observations and compliance issues during site visits. That's all changing, though, thanks to technology like AccuStore's mobile app, which allows field teams to capture photos and enter data on their mobile devices. As soon as the data is recorded, the app automatically transmits it to decision makers. Management can then take quick action to address compliance problems and improve customer experiences across locations.
5. Mobile loyalty programs
Many retailers reason that a simpler loyalty program experience will make customers even more loyal than before. In the past, you had to dig out a loyalty card and show it to the cashier. The number of points you had accumulated was always sort of a mystery, which made shoppers more skeptical of a given program's value.
Now customers can easily see how many rewards points they've racked up by downloading a retailer's mobile app. Mobile loyalty programs are becoming more common, with retailers releasing apps that let people monitor what they're earning. Some companies, like Best Buy, even offer consumers free points as an incentive to download their loyalty app.
6. Businesses on the move
Food trucks aren't the only businesses rolling in and out of parking lots these days. Mobile POS systems, like Square, enable virtually any sort of retailer to process payments on the go. Mobile boutiques and "pop-up shops" are already a regular sight in many communities, and it's probably just a matter of time before they appear in yours.
7. Contextual marketing
Contextual marketing isn't a new concept. Retailers have relied on it for years to encourage buying activity related to a customer's immediate environment or circumstances. For example, clothiers stock more board shorts during summer, and convenience stores adorn POP displays with lottery advertising when there's a big jackpot. This has been going on for a long time, so how does mobile technology enter the picture?
Let's say a big snowstorm is about to roll in. Tire centers will place snow tires in the shop windows. Recreational outfitters will position insulated pants near checkout counters. But the mobile-savvy retailers? They'll send users alerts through their mobile apps encouraging them to snap up winter-related products. The rise of mobile contextual marketing gives retailers a new platform for moving merchandise that's useful in a customer's immediate context.
8. Barcode scanning
The more questions you can answer about a product, the more you empower shoppers to buy it. And while barcode scanning isn't a new trend per se, its popularity skyrocketed during the 2014 holiday shopping season.
Mobile barcode scanning lets customers see more than just price. They can view product specs, read reviews, and find answers to virtually any sort of question they may have without sifting through Google results. Assuming they find what they're looking for (and they often do), they may be more inclined to purchase a product on the spot than to go home and "do more research."
9. Leveraging customer data
Say a customer who used to regularly purchase a particular product hasn't shown up in awhile. You know he hasn't been to your stores because you connect customers' purchases to their loyalty accounts. Knowing what bought in the past, you can surmise that he is interested in a certain category of merchandise. How can you use that data to bring this customer back?
Mobile technologies now enable retailers to exploit customer data in a variety of new ways. Many use the data they collect via barcode scans, past purchases, and location-based in-store marketing (see Trend #1) to send customized, targeted email updates and alerts to users' mobile devices. The more you know about your customers, the more precise you can be in your marketing.
10. Optimized mobile sites
With the excitement over mobile apps waning from its zenith a few years back, many retailers are pursuing a "back to basics" approach for mobile. Instead of fancy, bandwidth-heavy apps that provide inconsistent performance across devices, they're focusing on making it as simple as possible to find merchandise and buy it from your mobile device. In many cases, this means shifting energy away from app development and toward creating an optimal mobile website experience.
Some retailers, like Cabela's and Neiman Marcus, experienced website downtime during peak shopping days last year. The biggest reason: their servers couldn't handle the increase in mobile traffic. Retailers can avoid this by striving to ensure that the website experience – from a design and infrastructure standpoint – is as effortless for consumers as possible.
Mobile technologies are changing retail in a really big way. The trends we just discussed certainly aren't the only ones you're likely to notice during your shopping experience or, if you're a store manager, as you make retail merchandising decisions. Tech, it seems, will continue to improve – or at least change - how people shop. The smart retailers will change with them.