Mobile shopping follows the yellow brick-and-mortar road

This week the New York Times examined how online retailers are “offering an arsenal of mobile-only deals intended to pick off shoppers as they wait in line” during the looming holiday season. But while mobile shopping is clearly on the rise, it’s still a small market. Only 24 percent of all consumers who used their phones to help them shop actually made purchases on their handsets, but 52 percent of all smartphone users plan to use their devices to research products and redeem coupons during the holidays, as this infographic from AdAge illustrates. Traditional retailers need to use mobile to compete against online vendors by employing a few important strategies in their stores.

  • Provide free Wi-Fi. Cellular service can still be slow and spotty (especially in the massive caverns of modern retail chains), but consumers clearly want to use their devices as a kind of digital shopping assistant — and some will eventually stop shopping at stores that don’t make it easy for them to do so. Businesses should follow the leads of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and provide free Wi-Fi to help their customers learn more about them and their products. That Wi-Fi connection should lead consumers to a clean, mobile-optimized site (here are a few pointers) that clearly presents the retailer’s brand as well as its offerings.
  • Arm your sales personnel with mobile. Lowe’s is planning to issue 42,000 iPhones to employees this holiday season to help them assist their customers by accessing product information, checking inventory or even matching a competitor’s price. And tablets can be even more effective than smartphones by serving as high-tech, immersive pieces of marketing collateral for high-end products like cars or home entertainment systems. Burberry, Nordstrom and Things Remembered have deployed iPad trials at specific locations, and the cosmetic company Make Up For Ever provides iPads loaded with how-to videos and social networking applications to encourage their customers to advertise for them.
  • Offer deals and loyalty programs. Walgreens is hoping to drive foot traffic this Black Friday by offering mobile coupons that can be scanned at the register. Meanwhile, Visa is teaming with Shopkick to offer cardholder rewards to shoppers who scan consumer goods and make purchases at retailers like Old Navy and American Eagle. Both campaigns illustrate how mobile applications can be used to get consumers inside the door rather than simply enabling them to make an online purchase. And they create the kind of customer relationships that keep shoppers coming back.
  • Use QR codes. We have talked at length about how 2D bar codes can be leveraged in traditional media, but they can also be useful inside retail locations. QR codes can be placed in storefront windows and at the retail counter to encourage users to join loyalty programs or retrieve mobile coupons. They can also provide basic information like store hours or promotions. And they provide room for creativity as well: Fashion designers recently placed them on mannequins in New York’s Broadway fashion district as a way to get mobile users into stores and to the retail counter. QR codes may never gain massive acceptance, but they are a cheap and effective way to create conversations with tech-savvy customers.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are facing stiffer competition than ever from online counterparts like Amazon or, and that battle is spreading to mobile. Companies who embrace mobile to create customer stickiness and increase traffic (both virtual and physical) will thrive as the mobile data era continues to take off. But retailers who fail to capitalize on mobile will suffer the same fate as those who failed to see the importance of the Internet 10 to 15 years ago.

Question of the week

What are the best ways for brick-and-mortar retailers to leverage mobile this holiday shopping season?