Once upon a time, customers made purchases based on the information that was given to them via merchandising, promotions, and salespeople’s suggestions. Then came the mobile technology boom. Emarketer estimates that by the end of 2012 there will be nearly 116 million smartphone users in the United States. By 2015, that number will exceed 176 million.
As a result, the retail industry is in the midst of a power shift: Customers have unprecedented access to information, and sellers must work harder than ever to attract new customers, and keep existing ones satisfied.
Here are five ways the retail experience is changing — and how your small business can evolve with it.
1. Buying no longer has a blind spot. Thanks to mobile technology, customers are now empowered to find the best offers and to identify false claims. A recent study conducted by LJS Strategic Research shows that more than half of smartphone owners research a product before arriving at the store and 38 percent turn to their smartphones before making a final decision once they’re there. These days, retailers must be transparent in their pricing and promotions and offer added value (such as exceptional service and quality) to create points of differentiation that outweigh price.
2. There’s no waiting in “the virtual aisle.” Technology has set a societal expectation of instant gratification. As a result, retailers are moving away from the cash-register-and-checkout-line business model and toward letting customers find and buy merchandise on the spot. In early April, Intuit GoPayment acquired AisleBuyer, a startup whose technology allows retailers to mesh the best aspects of online and in-store shopping into one experience. AisleBuyer lets a store’s customers research prices and products via smartphone and then complete purchases virtually while in store. This eliminates their need to wait in line or for a sales associate. The system benefits retailers, too: Instead devoting staff to “manning the registers,” associates can engage with customers on the sales floor, boosting service and, hopefully, closing more sales.
3. Coupon cutting is out. Although consumers in the U.S. and Europe have been slower to migrate to mobile coupons than those in other markets, Mobile Marketing Daily projects that the geo-targeting and personalization ability of mobile marketing (ads, coupons, text messages, and more) will find solid footing. MMD predicts that “total redemption value of mobile coupons will rise from $5 billion in 2011 to $43 billion by 2016.” For small retailers, mobile marketing presents an affordable, accessible means of targeting customers that traditional marketing often lacks.
4. Apps are evolving. Since mobile apps became popular three years ago, they’ve proved to be a useful tool for retailers in building customer engagement and loyalty. However, thanks to “showrooming” — the industry term for customers who visit a store but complete their purchases online — these apps are evolving to fill a deeper need. New retail software trends include store credit-card applications that customers can complete by scanning a QR code in a fitting room and customer price alerts that offer deals on items a shopper has previously expressed interest in. Take advantage of app-building tools and remember that, to make real impact, your app must serve a purpose for your customer base and, ultimately, your business.
5. Foot traffic isn’t by chance. According to 2011 Google user data, one in three mobile searches is local, and more than half of users who’ve conducted a search visit the business. Thus, how consumers perceive your business on their mobile devices is critical. Retailers should adapt their websites to accommodate smartphones and tablet devices. Not sure whether your site fits the bill? Check it out on GoMo, a service powered by Google that shows you what mobile users see when they access your site.