Crate & Barrel's Move To Instantly Launch Mobile Chain-Wide Says Good Things About Mobile Maturity

Furniture and housewares retailer Crate & Barrel made its mobile move on Monday (Dec. 13), confirming that it will be rolling out mobile check-in devices at all of the chain's 160 U.S. stores. The most interesting part of this announcement, though, is something that might say more about mobile acceptance than about the chain's strategy. Instead of the typical handful-of-stores trial followed by a wider rollout and then perhaps a chain-wide expansion, Crate & Barrel announced that it's committing to a chain-wide effort immediately.

To at least get a sliver of silver bells in for 2010, the chain is rushing to get the mobile devices activated by Saturday (Dec. 18) at its stores in the Chicago and New York metro areas. The rest of the chain will kick in by February 2011, according to a statement from Shopkick, the vendor handling the mobile deployment.

Shopkick has cut similar deals with other retailers, including American Eagle Outfitters, Best Buy, Macy's, Sports Authority, Target and Wet Seal, in addition to a major mall operator (Simon Malls) and some of the larger consumer goods manufacturers (Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble). But Shopkick said Crate & Barrel was the first retail chain that "signed on for nationwide rollout of the program right from the beginning."

The willingness of the $1 billion-plus privately held chain to launch a mobile location application chain-wide with no trial and no gradual rollout is a surprisingly strong vote of confidence that this app will work within its network. That said, the way Crate & Barrel is using this mobile technique is not especially IT intrusive. There's minimal (if any) POS integration and no CRM implications. In other words, seeing that it's been working as advertised—for months—with other chains is probably quite adequate for this deployment.

If we look at Crate & Barrel as representative of many billion-dollar retailers, though, it also says quite a bit about the perceived maturity of mobile in mid-December 2010. Has it now become accepted to the point where no exhaustive proof of concept is needed? Has mobile, which as recently as January of this year was still a brand-new retail tool that not all chains were ready to embrace, come of age? Has it entered the world of mundane risk-free investment, along with self-checkout, POS video displays and price-checking kiosks?

Let's not get carried away. The vast majority of retailers today have no mobile programs in place, and surveys suggest that mobile rollouts with retailers next year will hardly be the norm. Many will roll out in 2011, but far more won't. By mobile rollout, we mean something meaningful and integrated, as opposed to allowing consumers to comparison shop with their Androids. When it comes to geolocation, geofencing, in-store-only (Wi-Fi) content, instant messaging with short-duration sales and 2D barcodes, mobile is still seen as a risky experiment and will likely stay that way until early 2012. (Consider recent retail pushback to taking mobile up even a half-notch.)

Still, moving to a chain-wide rollout right away is a very comforting maturation sign.