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Log In / Register | Nov 23, 2014

Mobile Phones and Store Shelves

Next week I'm presenting at the Mobile Marketing and Commerce Forum (MMCF), put on by Internet Retailer, on the specific topic of how web-only retailers can use mobile to compete at store shelves. I put my finishing touches on the presentation yesterday, but I've had mixed feelings in developing the topic all along.

I've spent a lot of my time and burned a lot of digital ink telling store-based retailers that the store is in trouble and that these retailers aren't doing enough to keep the store relevant in an increasingly cross-channel world. So I couldn't help feeling like putting together a bunch of pointers on how to take advantage of store troubles is a little like giving the battle plans over to the enemy. Which is a little extreme. Some of my favorite retailers are web-only retailers. And the relationship between traditional retailers vs. online pure-plays should in no way bethat adversarial.

However, in preparation for my presentation, I shopped a couple of retailers with the express intent of seeing what mobile does to the store experience. And I have to say, I was pretty disappointed by what I saw. I won't name names (you'll have to come to my presentation to get those), but while I already knew that store-based retailers do a very poor job at integrating digital into the store via mobile, I had no idea it was still THAT bad.

Mobile in stores reminds me of the arms race. Store retailers are trying to provide an experience that eliminates consumers' desires to use their mobile phones, and online-only retailers are trying to provide such a compelling mobile experience that consumers wouldn't imagine shopping in a store without their mobile phone. Store retailers try to head some of that off by providing a stellar mobile experience, which web-based retailers escalate by adding in location-aware features that kick in as soon as a shopper enters the competitor's store.

That's how the escalation works in theory. And my sense of discomfort comes from participating in the rapid escalation of stakes. You'll have a hard time convincing me that Target and Walmart deciding to abandon Kindle sales had absolutely nothing to do with Amazon's in-store price check promotion that they ran last holiday season. And in the same regard, pointing out store-based retailers' weaknesses, along with some of their more innovative in-store/mobile integration tactics feels a lot like adding fuel to the fire.

Then I went to the store. And the execution of store-based retailers' strategy to head off competitive mobile shopping at the shelf was poor. That's being kind. Yeah, I'm one person in one store, and maybe the flagship store does an excellent job in delivering an experience that makes mobile competitive shopping moot. But that's only one store too. I have a feeling my store experiences in Denver, far away from any retail HQ outside of Sports Authority, are more like the masses.

Let me just say this. Store-based retailers, if you're not working to head off comparison shopping at the shelf – and working with stores to make sure it is well executed – you deserve the fate you get. We still see 40% of retail respondents to our pricing surveys say that they don't see "showrooming" at the shelf, but that doesn't mean it's not happening. Store retailers can't (yet) track all of the activity at every shelf in every store. And just a casual pass through a couple of use-cases that would lead a consumer to pull out her mobile phone showed me that there is a lot of opportunity being left on the table for store-based retailers. Simple things that could make a huge difference and keep online-only retailers – especially the aggressive ones, like Amazon – away from your shelves. Literally something as simple as a sign on a display.

On the other hand, online-only retailers certainly don't have a lock on mobile competitive shopping at the shelf. It's in no way "game over" for the store-based retailers. Search capabilities are key, as are extras that turn commodity information like price and reviews into competitive differentiators. And there were no clear winners in the online space, at least from my little dip in the pool.

When I saw the level that both sides are executing to, it made me realize I don't need to feel bad at all. This aspect of the business needs a kick in the rear anyway. The only retailer who seems to have an advantage is Amazon, and that mostly because they've focused on it. But they have by no means won the war, any more than anyone else.

Seems like when it comes to mobile at the shelf, the future is wide open.

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