Mobile Relevance Drives the Retailer of Tomorrow

4/30/2014
Sometimes I wonder if anyone around me is living in the moment. I say this because it's is possible to walk down the street in any city of the world and find plenty of people with their faces buried in their smartphones. People seem to be too busy being part of somewhere else to live in the present time and place.

That said, it's high time retailers accept this new mobile paradigm. My gripe that people overwhelmingly live in the virtual worlds created by their cell phones is, whether I like it or not, a boon to stores. The ability to tap into a completely changing retail space is what will define success for these merchants over the next few years.

Retailers have a sterling opportunity to create a mobile-driven world for their consumers. Without any sort of pressure or hard sales tactics, consumers can immerse themselves into a customized retail experience and be drawn into purchasing decisions because of the seamless nature of how it all happens.

Perhaps I'm watching a new movie starring Brad Pitt. He's wearing a fancy shirt in a few of the scenes and just hours after the performance I receive a text on my phone that suggests I might like to try on a similar shirt at my nearby retailer.

We're talking relevance here. And relevance in a big way. That retailers can maintain a constant level of engagement with consumers is beyond question. The challenge for an effective store today is to maintain relevance. The trick is for the retailer to provide an app that the consumer is willing to sign up for and revisit consistently. These days, anyone can get a customer to look at something once or even twice. But to make an app be so relevant that it consistently becomes a go-to destination is what the most innovative retail enterprises are managing to accomplish.

I think there are certain players in the world of retail that do this type of thing exceptionally well. Starbucks has a good mobile app that gives its loyal coffee drinkers one free song every week. You can get more if you are actually in one of their stores. It turns out that a lot of people who are coffee drinkers are also interested in music. It's a nice feeling to get music freebies while you're getting your caffeine fix. I, for one, use this app at least once a week so it stays current. It's a foundation for engagement that retains the retailer as a top-of-mind recall. Once it's built into consumers' minds – not to mention their smartphones – a lot more synergies happen between the consumer and the retailer.

Event-based coupons are also becoming a staple of the mobile phone retail experience. After the Super Bowl, for instance, a special glazed cookie in the form of the Vince Lombardi trophy hit many coffee stands in the Pacific Northwest, but I'm told there were plenty of Seahawks fans elsewhere who enjoyed the specialty item. Another fast food retailer, McDonald's, is known to give away burgers in certain geographical areas that are hard-hit by storms. This action goes one step beyond personal engagement; the mobile promotion becomes community engagement.

A lot of consumer behavior requires foresight by the retailer to ensure integration between products. They need to take an active role in making sure all channels open to data from disparate sources. For example, the ability to connect to my cable TV company with my mobile number along with the channel being watched when Brad Pitt's fancy shirt movie was aired is a brilliant correlation of disparate data sources. The store is easily available to send out a text/push notification to sell the same shirt. Watching and referencing the Oscars, Super Bowl, World Cup, or other such events can result in similar relevant offers.

Because consumers are so closely tied to their mobile phones, retailers can significantly influence in-store shopper behavior. Another favorite food example of mine is the supermarket chain whose app gives popular recipes and then shows shoppers where in the store to get the ingredients – and even how many of each item to buy to get the proportions right. You don't walk out of the store with 16 tomatoes only to find out later you needed no more than five.

I bring up these examples because the best way to approach fashion is to think of apparel as food. I might have never thought about wearing, much less purchasing, a fancy shirt until the retailer sent me a text suggesting that I consider trying it out. It's not unlike urging a shopper to consider using vine-ripened Roma tomatoes instead of the regular ones because, for just $2 extra, your recipe will taste substantially better. Will I look better if I'm wearing that shirt that Brad Pitt had on in the movie? I imagine so. It just might be worth the extra cost.

Even if I decide not to buy it, the retailer has gotten me into a store and poking around. And they know that I'm most likely in the mood to try new styles and colors, some at decidedly upscale price points. High-end luxury retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom are particularly good at suggesting merchandise that complements my past purchases in order to transform my buying habits. When a new shirt comes in, an email update might notify me that it goes well with a suit I've recently bought. And did you know that a blue shirt goes as well with a brown sport coat as well as a white one? Why not try both colors? 

Such matchmaking across mobile devices can be facilitated when retailers think without boundaries and across product categories integrating multiple channels of data. For example, I was pleasantly surprised when I recently received an email from a large consumer electronics retailer that involved a special on dinner and a movie. Had I ever associated the place I buy cell phones and camcorders with a food special? Of course not. But the promotion featured various electrical appliances that make popcorn, casseroles, and even homemade soda pop. I've heard of more traditional Valentine's Day promotions, but the cross-selling in an effort to push stay-at-home dates was fascinating nonetheless.

Even bolder and possibly controversial was the promotion that touted – for your wife's birthday, no less – a washer and dryer combination. The text got me to comparing prices between that store and its rivals. But they did remind me that I'd be a good husband not only for finding the best deal; I'd be buying my wife a washing machine and dryer so that she could free up her time. It was an interesting proposition, that I'll say!

I did spend a while comparing and contrasting appliance prices on my mobile simply because the promotion was unique. Most people aren't even aware of the fact that many of the store's apps can keep track of how much time one spends in a store should my curiosity get the best of me. True, they offer free Wi-Fi, but one of the terms of the agreement is that they track your every move. Maybe I came in for that “fancy” shirt I saw in the movie. But I spent a lot of my time looking at men's wristwatches. Although I didn't choose to buy anything during that visit, my wife might get a text from the retailer reminding her that I have a birthday coming up – and that I was browsing for watches. Who doesn't think that text will catch her attention?

There's yet another advantage of consumers living in a mobile reality, and that's the size of their shopping baskets. This is not to be confused with upselling. It's about the amount of stuff they end up buying during one trip. Today you're buying a suit, so do you know which ties go well with it? Why not look at some shoes, and for that matter, some socks as well? Everything is connected. Again, we can learn a lot from grocery stores. Some of the savviest suggest which wine goes well with the block of cheese you just bought. And be sure to swing by the bakery section, where fresh bread is coming out of the oven.

Like most other aspects of a mobile reality, it's fun to be a part of it. When I'm on my way to the dressing room, maybe I post a photo to my social media page of me trying on that new shirt. My friends around the world will chime in, as if they're there with me in the store, and will tell me if they think I should buy it or not.

No matter what decision you make, you're as good as hooked as a loyal customer to that retailer in the future. Everything they've done over your mobile device has been highly relevant to your needs and expectations, and in that world, relevance is as important an element as there is.


Madhu Janardan is vice president of retail and CPG for Infosys.
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