Why Not Use Mobile To Complete Offline Purchases In-Store?

Todd Michaud runs Power Thinking Media, which helps retailers and restaurants tackle the convergence of social, mobile and retail technologies. He had previously spent nine years delivering technology solutions to more than 10,000 retail locations as VP of IT for Focus and Director of Retail Technology for Dunkin' Brands.

Retailers are using mobile all wrong. How about using the physical stores to save sales that were abandoned online? In other words, why not use mobile as the bridge between online and brick-and-mortar? For example, what if an apparel chain used its online shopping cart to pull a set of clothes for shoppers to try on in the fitting room of their local store at their convenience?

And here's a crazy thought: What if the customer could tag an item in the retail store so that it automatically was added to their online shopping cart for future purchase? That is probably the first "lasting" use of QR codes that I can think of (the current URL shortening QR Code fad will fade faster than MC Hammer's career). This would enable people who like what they see to purchase it later. Think of the "husband-and-wife" uses for this capability. "Honey, I really like the looks of this new washing machine, but wanted to let you check it out before I purchased it."

When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So when retailers see a smartphone, they see a store. Why is everyone so hung up on mobile commerce? Although it would be great if people flocked to making purchases on their phones, the reality is that the current mobile interface is difficult for traditional online retailing to work. There is only so much you can do with a 4-inch piece of glass. M-Commerce is but a small fraction of sales for most major brands.

If I was on BestBuy.com or using the mobile app to look at certain products that chain carries, why doesn't the retailer remind me of those items when I walk into a brick-and-mortar store with an offer to pick them up right now at a discount? It could even offer a promotional code with the discount, so I could properly close the loop on that transaction to see that my offer did or didn't work. The smartphone is bridging that gap by identifying when a consumer is entering the store (via location-based services), offering a promotion based on online activity (Todd's been looking at laptops online) and offering a promotion directly to that user's phone (buy this model today and get an extra 5 percent off).

I have been having a lot of conversations recently about the role of smartphones in brick-and-mortar retailing. Depending on the person and the brand, the conversations are all over the place. M-Commerce, mobile payments, loyalty and location-based services are all hot topics and great opportunities for retailers to explore. But what I can't understand is why more retail brands aren't trying to figure out creative ways to use the smartphone as a bridge between their stores and their online operations (other than the obvious fact that, in many organizations, the divisions are completely separate and non-integrated. You know, small things like that).

This approach does require that you tie a person's cell phone to his or her online account. I think this is easily accomplished with a registration process on the mobile app (and some worthwhile offer to convince the consumer to register; requiring it would be suicide).

Once you can tie the online site with the mobile phone and the user agrees to notifications by the app, then it is about creating a system that enables this "extended digital save" process to work. You would need to figure out the back-office processes around making and redeeming the offer, being sure to put in place fraud detection for those who try to game the system.The other thing this does is possibly breathe new life into mobile applications. We've all read the reports that show such a large number of mobile apps that are downloaded and used only a few times before being deleted or just abandoned. What if the app's primary value to the consumer was an M-Commerce engine, but its primary benefit to the retailer was a simple communication vehicle with the consumer when it is geo-context sensitive.

There are so many uses for a smartphone that aren't directly related to commerce:

  • The person who walks up to a car dealership and whose phone provides a list of cars he or she should test-drive based on both personal feedback and a ranking of how much time the consumer spent researching each model.
  • The electronic retailer figuring out which associate should engage with the customer based on what that customer researched online (removing the need for everyone to learn everything or chase through the store looking for someone who knows a product line).
  • A big-box retailer allowing a customer to tag an item in a store and then directing that customer to the online reviews for that item.

Then try is taking a picture of a retail item and pinning it to a board in Pinterest (I just had to throw that in here. There's no such thing as a list without a Pinterest mention these days).

If I take a step back and look at my goals as a retailer, I would want to try and figure out a way to use technology to remove as many possible barriers to my sales. E-Commerce removes the proximity barrier to a sale, but it creates a sense of urgency. Although M-Commerce removes barriers to easy access to the catalog, it creates more challenges by trying to do to much in too small of an interface.

I'm not going to say that there are not plenty of M-Commerce opportunities out there for retailers to capitalize on, but I am saying that the benefits of having the consumer carry around a powerful computer in a pocket may go beyond easy-to-see dollars and cents.

What do you think? If you disagree (or even, heaven forbid, agree), please comment below or send me a private message. Or check out the Twitter discussion on @todd_michaud.