Get Smart about Smartphones to Appease Digital Shoppers

Tesco using QR codes instoreThe smartphone is changing how we shop. From showrooming to hitting the January sales in a more convenient way, smartphones have placed shoppers ahead of retailers and brands in the race to master digital. This gap is set to widen as retailers struggle to keep up with the expectations of the increasingly demanding digital shopper. Smartphones are creating a bridge between physical products and digital worlds, but retailers and brands are failing to grasp the nettle.

To quote Deloitte: “around 6% of in-store retail sales are being influenced by smartphone use, equivalent to £15.2bn of sales in 2012”. And it’s a trend that’s set to grow: “By 2016, more than 80% of consumers are expected to own a smartphone and Deloitte estimates that between 15% and 18% of in-store sales will be smartphone-influenced, equivalent to £35-43bn”.

It’s already well-entrenched that digital shoppers use their smartphones for practical searches such as locating stores, checking deals, comparing prices and researching products – all top motivations. But the smartphone’s potential as a shopping tool goes way beyond these relatively prosaic functions.

Smartphones have seamlessly integrated into our lives like a multipurpose Swiss army knife. This creates a golden opportunity for brands and retailers to reach their shoppers in new, value-added ways whilst building brand equity. So why aren’t retailers and brands doing more to connect and influence their shoppers through smartphones?

Some are trying, but few – if any – are scoring full marks. I came across a QR code in Tesco’s spirits aisle the other day. Shopping for a party, I was on the hunt for spirits and mixers to make cocktails. I scanned said QR code in the hope of finding inspiration. But imagine my disappointment to find myself being directed straight to Tesco’s m-commerce page.

Tesco was essentially showing me another way to purchase what was directly in front of me… and I wasn’t even showrooming. Sadly, this is typical and shows that retailers aren’t fully embracing smartphones. In fact, it feels like they’re playing catch-up with the expectations of digital shoppers.

Looking back at how retail has evolved over the past 5 to 10 years, it doesn’t come as a surprise to find it’s the shoppers who are ahead of the game. Shoppers, with their busy and demanding lives, have required more convenience. And it’s this that has driven the shift from high street and neighbourhood stores to online shopping, ‘grocery plus’ stores and an evolution of on-the-go retail; think Tesco Extra and BP + M&S Simply Food.

In line with this need for enhanced convenience, shoppers also want to maximise their free time. They now expect quality shopping experiences. This has led to better destination retail in retail parks and shopping malls, with Westfield being a case in point. Retailers that didn’t pay close attention to shopper’s demands and expectations have disappeared. Similarly, if retailers ignore the digital shopper’s need for smartphone plug-ins, they may also find themselves going the way of HMV and Comet.

It’s understandable that retailers and brands may feel the fear about investing in this largely unchartered territory, but it’s soon going to be impossible to ignore the role that smartphones play in shopping. Trendwatching’s ‘Point-Know-Buy’ report shows that consumers’ expectations of what smartphones can achieve is high and search will no longer be limited to text.

Next generation apps create an expectation that we can point our smartphone at anything and have information fed back to us in a relevant and personalised way. Every brand must now consider how their physical product can link to the digital brand world.

The question that retailers and brands need to consider is: how can the smartphone optimise the path to purchase? Identifying barriers to purchase is great place to start. If only that Tesco QR code had taken me to a place where I could get cocktail recommendations.

The creative opportunities are manifold. I could have been guided by the type of party I wanted, or the nature of the occasion could have been matched to the right mixers. These simple ideas foster a much richer experience and, most importantly, can help trigger purchase.

In fact, smartphones are an ideal vehicle for triggering purchase. But, again, retailers and brands are being woefully slow to realise its potential. There are, however, a few exceptions. The Emmi Murmeli app features an animal, Murmeli, from the Swiss milk processing brand’s ATL campaign. Murmeli is a Tamagotchi and when the animal becomes hungry, he must be fed by using the app to scan codes on real Emmi products.

This is a great way of getting product in hand and creating purchase triggers. If retailers and brands were more open to using smartphones as a tool to drive purchase, they would feel the benefits in more than one way. Not only would they be satisfying the expectations of digital shoppers, they could also increase revenue.

There’s no doubt that the digital shopper offers brands and retailers huge and untapped potential. As a marketer and a shopper, I personally cannot wait to use my smartphone to pre-order and pay for my coffee so it’s waiting for me at Kings Cross – a nice and convenient way to perk up the daily march to work.

I’d also like to get genuine inspiration in complex categories… like spirits at Tesco. Even better, how about using my smartphone to find products, like the ever-elusive mustard, without traipsing around numerous supermarket aisles and bothering harassed staff? Or scanning a pile of jeans and instantly finding my size? Or streamlining my wallet by getting receipts sent straight to my mobile?

Shoppers are digital already and they have great expectations from smartphones. It’s up to brands and retailers to stop lagging behind.

John Viccars is shopper strategist at brand behaviour led marketing agency, RPM (@rpmltd)