Mobile puts retail on a rollercoaster – how brands are innovating to engage
The huge growth in mobile is having a major impact on our high streets. But it‘s not all bad. Brands that embrace the medium are finding innovative ways of engaging customers both in store and online.
To click or to wander? Last month, Boston Consulting Group published findings stating that the UK has the largest internet economy of the G20. Mobile is an integral part of this. The joy of m-commerce – the freedom to purchase items from anywhere with a phone signal, allows you to shop around for the best deal without having to trudge around the high street. This preference is particularly acute in Britain, having gone from what, in 1776, Adam Smith called “a nation of shopkeepers”, to last year, when mobile shopping saw a 187% increase, according to analysis by IBM. Today, it’s not a case of one or the other though; online commerce (be it PC or mobile) is both helping and hindering the high street.
The drift towards m-commerce, however beneficial and efficient for the customer, is one of myriad factors having a negative effect on the high street. Our quest for a bargain doesn’t help either, as detailed in the Financial Times recently: “Consumers and investors have never been so empowered. Yet these great deals come at the expense of our jobs and wages, and widening inequality.” 
The government reports that 183 retailers fell into administration last year and that one in three of the nation’s high streets are failing; the internet must shoulder some responsibility for this. Argos, Mothercare and Thorntons are said to be planning the closure of up to one third of their shops. Conversely, Experian Hitwise reported that Boxing Day last year was the biggest day ever for online retail in the UK.
While digital take-up is hurting the high street, it is also causing it to evolve. For example, US retailer Macy’s, with its staunch omnichannel approach, recently unveiled Beauty Spot at the National Retail Federation’s Convention, a digital mirror that suggests makeup for you to try on and then share your looks with friends. Kraft featured a vending machine with face-recognition technology, registering your ethnographic details and dispensing product samples based on that data.
The possibilities for clothing are significant, too. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft showcased a digital prototype for retailers. It uses Microsoft’s Kinect to let customers try on multiple items in front of a digital mirror before choosing which to ultimately buy. Last month, the e-tailer Gilt Groupe teamed up with GQ to create a men’s high-fashion retail experience in New York’s so-fashionable-it’ll-soon-be-uncool Meatpacking District.
Such movements are part of a burgeoning trend, blurring the boundaries between digital and bricks-and-mortar retail. Retailers must begin taking advantage of this immediately if their physical stores are to survive. Make the mobile and physical shopping experience seamless and admit the strategic problem: people find it easier to shop at home. High-end stores could lower inventory, highlighting ‘hero’ products and making the shop more of an experiential journey. Lower-end could offer special deals that are only available in-store, not online; currently the opposite is the case. Balancing the ease of m-commerce with the attraction of a physical retail space is a delicate one, but one which retailers must very quickly start considering, or risk facing a bleak outlook.
David Llewelyn-Jones is a planner at TMW.