OPINION: Can mobile save the high street?

This Christmas shopping season will be all about consumer adoption of mobile and tablet devices.

While the proportion of consumers actually using a mobile to make a purchase remains a minority — just 28 per cent of US and 25 per cent of UK respondents said they have done so in our 2012 survey —  this group of m-payers is growing rapidly. In 2011 they were 12 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.

So the question for retailers is: are you ready, or are you approaching a mobile cliff when it comes to your customer’s expectations?

This Christmas, retailers should be looking to mobile to help drive sales and footfall into stores. It may be hard for smaller retailers to compete with online shopping and larger chains, but in voucher incentive programs, mobile listings and QR codes, they have the tools to fight back.

Mobile is critical. Why? Because every day consumers spend 24 minutes surfing the web on a smartphone compared to 12 minutes on phone calls. Your customers are using mobile already for price comparison, product research, and to make purchases.

So retailers need to be ready to match customers’ mobile expectations. Here is how.

There are a number of tactics which retailers can use to increase their visibility to mobile users, and encourage them to pay their stores a visit.

* Optimise for mobile users

The first step for retailers is to introduce a mobile version of their website, or perhaps a mobile app, so that your customers can view products and place orders.  For example, Debenhams has a mobile-optimised website and a range of apps which allow users to buy from them anywhere and, in the case of apps, to use a barcode scanner to compare prices and view product information, whether in a Debenhams store or a competitor’s.

* Google Places

Local businesses can target local searchers by creating a free listing via Google Places, which then appears in relevant local search results. In this example, it plots local restaurants on a map, then lists them along with contact details and user reviews. If your restaurant is on this list with a good review, this is a powerful way to drive footfall.

* Mobile search

This has grown by almost 500 per cent over the past two years while, according to Google stats, with 85 per cent of UK mobile users seeking local information on their smartphones. Even if businesses don’t have a website, this is a great way to maintain an online presence and provide mobile searchers with information on and directions to your business.

* Click to call

This is another tactic retailers can use to target local mobile searches. It’s a service offered as part of Google’s Mobile Ads, which allows advertisers to add a phone number to paid search results viewed on mobiles. Businesses can add an AdWords Call Extension to campaigns and the contact phone number will automatically appear when ads show on mobile devices. Searchers can then click the number to call the restaurant or retailer they have been searching for.

* Mobile listings websites and apps

Apps such as Yelp and Qype provide users with information and reviews on local businesses and services. Both Qype and Yelp have mobile websites and apps for Android and iPhone handsets. Users can search on their mobiles for businesses in the local area and access reviews, directions, contact details and so on. It allows retailers to reach a tech-savvy audience which increasingly uses apps to find local businesses and services.

* Provide Wi-Fi

This is a relatively new innovation, and may seem counterintuitive at first, but retailers such as Debenhams and Tesco are beginning to roll this service out in their stores. Some retailers may be concerned about the threat of mobile comparison – and Amazon’s excellent mobile apps do present a challenge, but this is a trend that needs to be embraced, as there are more pros than cons.

It allows retailers to direct shoppers to their own mobile apps and sites. For example, Tesco uses QR codes on some electrical products so that mobile users can scan for product demos and further information.  This is a smart move. If customers are going to use mobile to hunt for reviews and price comparison, it makes sense to point them at your own product pages.

In addition, Wi-Fi, in conjunction with a customer login (at the moment Tesco does this via Clubcard numbers) allows retailers to laser target promotions to customers, based not only on their purchase history but also their location.

* QR codes and barcodes

QR codes and barcodes can be used as in store prompts, which could lead shoppers to pages offering further information on products, or to serve vouchers to customers.

For example, a retailer could place a QR code near a digital camera display, which could then link to further product information, videos, and user reviews which could help the customer to decide on a purchase there and then.

* The store as a showroom?

There is a trend towards smaller stores, which are almost used as showrooms, with orders placed online or via mobile and delivered in-store or to customers’ homes. This can be done via kiosks in stores or, and this is the future, via customers’ mobile phones. For example, both John Lewis and House of Fraser have begun to launch in smaller retail units with a limited product range.

Pop-up shops are another recent trend. This is a tactic that online brands can use to tip their toes in offline retail, or high street brand s like Argos can use to create a temporary presence in additional locations.

For example, eBay opened a pop-up store on Dean St, close to Oxford St. in the run up to Christmas last year.

These tools can all arm retailers to re-gain the momentum over their competition and become the digital stores of the future – with mobile at the heart of the action.

According to Lutebox CEO Ali Ahmed, speaking at Econsultancy’s recent Google Hangout on mobile and the high street, “the high street may become a showroom environment in future, and mobile will play a big part in that”.

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