If Anything, Mobile Impact on Retailers Is Underestimated

Carl Weinschenk

Everyone understands at a high level that the rise of mobility is changing retail in big ways. But, at times, something becomes an article of faith and is not actively revisited, though the width and breadth of the original shift has grown.

Prescient folks hearing the first radio broadcasts no doubt understood that technology would change communications. If they subsequently didn’t pay much attention for a couple of decades, they would have been shocked to see that they underestimated the changes and how unexpectedly powerful and potent the technology became as brilliant people systematically built on the original concepts and technologies.

Likewise, it was possible several years ago to say that mobility would impact retail. But the level to which that has happened has grown beyond what anyone could realistically have imagined. What is striking about this InformationWeek post detailing the great investment made by Lowe’s in mobility isn’t the money or additional personnel. Those are givens. What is striking is that how comprehensive the changes are:

Lowe's is embracing smartphone empowered shopping more than most retailers. With iPhones in hand, its employees can check inventory at nearby stores, share how-to videos, check competitor prices, and point shoppers to Lowes.com, says Jeffrey Chang, VP of IT innovation and strategy. They can access online tools for tasks such as calculating the amount of paint needed to cover a given room--without leaving the customer.

The post is short but goes on to mention all sorts of neat things that employees can do with their iPhone that they needed to do from their desks previously. Indeed, there are some things that they would have had trouble doing previously from anywhere.

The point is that the capabilities of mobile devices to aid retailers are staggering and companies that wish to survive need to play the game seriously. The Wall Street Journal offers an item on a study by GP Bullhound, a European-based financial firm with an office in San Francisco. The company said that the five characteristics of mobile commerce winners are that they will use existing infrastructure elements; enable faster or more convenient delivery of products to customers; use all the elements of a smartphone; scale and “get the user experience right.”

The world of mobility is so complex that there are no clear winners and losers. It would seem at first glance that retailers not anchored to brick-and-mortar stores would be at a disadvantage. That was true in the early days and remains so today — if they don’t act proactively. The Motley Fool’s Tamara Rutter, in a story posted at AOL’s DailyFinance, wrote that traditional retailers can help themselves:

The companies that are most responsive to change will be the same ones that thrive in the years to come. Some of the top U.S. chains are indeed using the disruption of smartphones to increase in-store sales and drive more traffic to their stores. Target is especially proactive in its efforts to adapt to the changing world of retail. The discounter started aggressively expanding its mobile reach in 2010 with initiatives such as My TargetWeekly, which lets consumers customize alerts for special in-store product promotions.

The changes show no sign of slowing. The bottom line is that mobility isn’t just influencing retail. It is transforming it. The smart legacy retailers — those that have real addresses and pay rent on buildings — understand this. To their credit, the smart companies recognize this. The others need to get with the program or they won’t be paying rent much longer.

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