Are Stores Really Helpless Against Amazon? That Question Has It Backward

There's a jarring bit of retail insight buried in a story from The Register last Thursday (March 28). The story itself is about a new Motorola (NYSE:MSI) "smart badge" for in-store associates that can do much of what an iPod Touch does at many stores—except the smart badge is "ruggedized," twice the iPod's price, and can't be fitted with a swipe sled for taking payment cards. Line-busting? Not with this device.

But here's that insight: "No one can compete with Amazon when a customer knows what they want," The Register's Bill Ray writes. "Stores need to excel at selling things the customer didn't know they were after, and greater technology might not be the best way to achieve that."

That sounds depressing, even though it's probably not quite true. Sure, Amazon has cutthroat pricing and isn't paying for all your expensive retail floor space. It has the ability to sell to customers anywhere and anytime with a single click. Customers know they can stroll through your store and then buy from Amazon for the best of both worlds. And selling customers things they don't know they want? That's a long shot at best.

But let's turn that "no one can compete with Amazon" statement around: If a customer isn't a pure-play showroomer who really just wants to see whether that gadget looks cheesy or that blouse is the right color before buying on (NASDAQ:AMZN), what kind of in-store technology can help associates do a better job of helping customers find what they want—and convince customers that here and now is the right time and place to buy it?

That unwieldy question wipes out many of the ideas that retailers are bounced around for in-store mobile devices.

Product videos? Very pretty, but what's the point of a tiny image on a tiny screen when the actual products are right there—full-size, 3-D and interactive? Or what about access to the chain's e-commerce site? That's an invitation to search the Web and lose the customer you've actually managed to get into the store.

Stores have always been plagued by what's now called showrooming: "shoppers" who want to see what you've got but know they won't be spending any money with you. Forget them. How can you move the customers who are actually shopping?

Naturally, that depends. If a customer thinks he know exactly what he wants, an app that lets an associate see similar alternatives—with full details—might make a difference (We've found a cheaper version that does what you want! or We've found something with that one missing feature!).

Or if she has already decided but is visiting stores to compare prices, an app that actually pulls up those price comparisons—even if some competitors' prices are lower—might bring the shopping odyssey to a close (You'll only save this much by going across town or online—buy now and you can save gas and wear it tonight!).

And for times when the customer is still hesitant to buy, an app that automatically generates a package deal, bundling add-ons or accessories that the customer is likely to want, with a discounted price for the entire deal—and if the customer wants a different selection, a feature that can handle substitutions (You'll need these things anyway, and the bundle will cost you less than anywhere else!).

Face it, you are competing with Amazon. If you're going to equip associates with handheld technology, it should give them the tools to outsell Amazon—or at least have a fighting chance.

Oh, and don't forget the swipe sled. It's as close to 1-Click as a store is going to get.