The age of the real-time connected consumer

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Mobility is making waves for retailers in the UK and the US, as increased use of smartphones and tablets offer consumers a chance to do out a lot more than just “try before they buy”.

In the UK, for example, multichannel sales are “booming”, driven by online connectivity, according to a recent report published by Mintel.* Data from leading retailers reveal “sharp increases in online sales at a time when total retail sales growth is proving hard to come by”, according to the report. Everyone from Tesco to Marks & Spencer have reported increased in online spend.

“Consumers have higher expectations than ever in terms of better service and lower prices. At the same time, mobile internet browsing is as popular as fixed line internet browsing these days** and it’s getting increasingly difficult to reach consumers through traditional advertising methods,” says Mike Ritchie-Cox, head of Consumer Goods Industry with Vodafone Global Enterprise. “Consumers don’t have a lot of time and their spending habits are under extreme pressure, and the way they absorb media has changed significantly. As a consequence, everything is pointing towards mobile as the fastest growing channel of choice.”

In the US, while online channels still only account for a relatively small portion of direct purchases – about nine per cent – research by Deloitte Consulting reveals that 41 per cent of US retail sales are “digitally influenced”. In other words, at some point in the process of choosing, comparing and buying a product, an online channel came into play. The research also suggests that up to 60 per cent of transactions will be influenced by phone or internet, or a combination, within the next six years.

"We think the next 10 years in retail are going to be more disruptive than the last 50 years combined. We’re really going to see things shaken up." Lisa Gomez,

senior manager at Deloitte Consulting and co-author of the firm’s Store 3.0 report

The most important trend of the last decade? The rise of the real-time “connected consumer” says Gomez, with the internet arming customers with more product detail than ever before, from specs to prices across hundreds of different outlets as well as online.

The rising popularity in smartphones has only deepened the trend, putting this information in people’s pockets while adding new options for place-based information and social interaction around brands and shopping choices.

Gomez says the most important question for retailers is not whether they are going to be swept away by technology – which was the overriding fear a decade ago. It’s what to do with the stores they have.

“Non-store sales constitute only nine per cent of the market and we don’t see that shifting to 90 per cent any time soon – stores will still have a function” Gomez says. “But how they operate and what they offer will have to change.”

Helpful devices

With all of this in mind, can retailers afford to ignore new channels, whether online, mobile or social media? And if not, what does this mean for retail mobile or digital strategies?

“Retailers need to be faster and more responsive, and to take the initiative. How do you convince consumers to buy your goods rather than using your shop to test goods only to then buy them online?,” says Ritchie-Cox. “Mobility plays a big part in that, building a digital engagement with consumers. Take the initiative back, be proactive and responsive. Learn to respond rapidly to changing circumstances.”

For retailers, it’s a question of giving consumers more and tapping into the potential of mobility along the way. Mobile technology can be used to give consumers more information about what they can and can’t do in particular stores. Google’s “local inventory check”, for example, allows you to search for available items at stores in the vicinity, increasing the chances that you might visit. Social media is also having an impact – retail apps have been launched that allow people to see what their friends are browsing and purchasing, which is potentially a big influence on shopping decisions.

Importantly, handhelds also make shop assistants more knowledgeable. Whereas retailers used to lose sales if associates failed to answer questions, now they can look up everything on mobile device, such as a tablet. And tablets can also be used to extend the cash register – such as happens in Apple stores – and save people from long queues. Instead of paying at the front, you simply find a sales rep who is on the floor and process the payment wirelessly.

Some retailers are responding to this brave new world by taking virtual interactivity into the shops themselves. The Adidas “adiVerse virtual footwear wall”, unveiled in 2011, can bring up any of the 8,000+ shoes in the brand’s range, in high-resolution 3D and allows shoppers to rotate and zoom in on items via multiple LCD touch screens while reviewing product details.

The system is designed to give customers a more tailored experience, right down to using facial recognition to determine customer gender before they’ve even made physical contact. Popular products feature videos, statistics, product specifications and social media links for those interested. As with Apple, the adiVerse system allows products to be added to a virtual cart on the spot and customers can then check out via individual sales staff each of whom carries iPad. Best of all for Adidas, the adiVerse wall can be set up in shops of any size, which gives smaller outlets the same competitive power as a flagship store in a major urban centre.

As a consequence of developments such as these, stores and other retail spaces are likely to be used in very different ways, with an emphasis on flexibility and less distinction between “channels”.

“At the moment, e-commerce, mobile and stores are discrete channels. Retailers have looked at their businesses in silos,” concludes Gomez. “There is an opportunity to create one channel and for the whole assortment to be available across the enterprise.”

That might mean more combinations of on and offline: buying at home and picking up in-store, or buying via phone in-store and having items delivered. Or shopping at several mall stores and then picking up everything at the end of the shopping trip. Whichever channel they choose, however, consumers will judge it based one common denominator: the seamlessness of the experience.

As Neil Mason, head of retail research with Mintel and author of Multi-channel Retailing, writes in his report: “The essence of multichannel retailing is making the retail offer accessible whenever and wherever, consumers want to shop. This raises important issues about the future role for stores, especially how much space and how many stores retailers need to deliver a multichannel offer, and also requires retailers to ensure that channels operate as seamlessly as possible to ensure that shoppers enjoy a consistent experience no matter how many, or which, touch points they use.”

In the future, it may be that we won’t think of online and offline as completely separate worlds, but part of the same seamless whole. Only time – and technology – will tell.


* “Multi-channel Retailing”. Neil Mason. Mintel. November 2011.

** The Communications Market 2012 (July). Ofcom.