Sears' Mobile: Focusing On The Consumer Who Doesn't Have A Smartphone

Sears' in-store mobile move is more about feature migration (from POS and consumer's phones to phones controlled by associates) than new functionality. But for an October 2011 rollout—given some of Sears' thinking—that might be just perfect.

When Sears on October 13 added its name to the lengthy roster of chains rolling out in-store associate-controlled Apple devices, it opted to not offer checkout. But it is mirroring the services for customers that associates have, for years, been able to do from POS stations and that customers (for a lesser time) have been able to do from their own smartphones.

Sears' conservative move makes more sense in the context that many customers may not feel like using their phones while shopping and, more to the point, most American consumers don't yet have smartphones—if you accept the smartphone definition of a phone that can download third-party apps. It's true that most consumers don't yet have such smartphones, but just barely. Last month, Nielsen put U.S. smartphone ownership at 40 percent, so it's unlikely to be true by the end of next year, given the millions of sales of new iPhones and Androids that have been reported this week.

Mobile commerce itself is certainly a phrase searching for a clean definition. But we're partial to the idea that just about any commerce facilitated by such a device is an important part of M-Commerce, whether the purchase is being made (mobile payment) or researched (consumer-controlled searching, either in-store or elsewhere) or if the customer is being incentivized to interact with the store more (check-in services). It also shouldn't matter—for this definition—whether the phone is owner-controlled by the customer or the store associate.

Sears spokesperson Kimberly Freely said her chain, from a conceptual perspective, is viewing it more narrowly.

"It isn't about mobile shopping, per se. This is about store experience," she said. "This is about making the experience more interactive for customers through the use of iPads and iPod Touches, offering them the chance to check inventory, view product videos and check product reviews to see products that we might not have in the store and compare items."

The problem is that Sears customers have had—for quite some time—the ability to do all of those things. The difference here is really the form factor and the convenience, and that's an essential distinction. What's new is not the functions but the form factor itself, and the location-flexibility of that form factor.

There's also a key sales point behind the scenes here.There's also a key sales point behind the scenes here. Years ago, in the early days of in-store kiosk strategy, the popular approach was to use the kiosk to replace floor associates or, to be nicer, make do with far fewer store associates. However, it didn't take long for store execs to realize that consumers didn't like being pushed off on a machine, as though associates were saying: "Get away from me, kid, until you're ready to buy. I have more important things to do."

But when those same associates started using the kiosks as sales tools—by standing with the customer, handling the kiosk controls and using it for demos, product searches and whatnot—sales took a decidedly northward spike.

By arming floor associates with the devices, it not only frees customers up—and enables those who don't have smartphones—but it puts the control back into the hands of the sales associates. That's one way to discourage sales from slipping away to Amazon or

Sears is rolling out the Apple devices slowly in the U.S., starting with 449 stores, according to the chain. Although opting to not say when it expects those initial deployments to be in place, the upcoming holiday season certainly suggests it will be completed quickly.

"The rollout is happening now, and we hope to have it completed by the holidays," Freely said.

At 449 stores, that represents about 13 percent of the roughly 3,500 Sears and Kmart stores in the U.S.

Sears' announcement also said that the chain would be offering free Wi-Fi at 377 stores.

The idea of pushing Wi-Fi is a solid one. But where many have dropped the ball—and we haven't seen anything from Sears yet to indicate that it has addressed this—has been on consumer handholding. There are three parts to that. First, making sure any smartphone-possessing customer who walks in the door understands that Sears has a free Wi-Fi network for their unlimited use. Second, making sure the customer knows how to use it. (That second one is going to be needed by an increasingly small population, but they do still exist. Signage and associates need to talk about how to access the store's Wi-Fi for various smartphones.)

But the third issue is the most critical: convincing customers it's safe. In consumer-friendly language, mention the security precautions that will protect them from any malicious fellow Wi-Fi shoppers. Without that third one, many shoppers will simply say "thanks, but no thanks" to the free wireless ride. And there goes all of those mobile-friendly new sales.