Power shifts to mobile consumers

January 06, 2012

Smartphones and tablets are shoppers’ best friends, bringing them price and product information on the go. How should retailers behave?

Retailers are of two minds about mobile commerce. Some operators feel they gain competitive advantage serving the demands of omni-channel shoppers, and even embrace them with location-based check-in deals.  Others resent the price and performance pressures applied by smartphone- and tablet-toting shoppers, who find product, price and consumer review information on the Web and apps before and during visits to their stores.  

All seem wary of Amazon.com, with its wide merchandise portfolio, a shopping app called Price Check, and a New York Times-reported tripling of U.S. consumers this year who shop that site with their mobile device.

Moreover, eBay’s The Find price-comparison app told The Wall Street Journal it averages from 18 million to 20 million price checks per month, up from 13 million to 15 million per month in 2010.

How soon might food retailers experience the pain felt by department store and consumer electronics chains – which have turned to brand exclusives and private labels in order to prevent any direct price comparisons and help keep margins in line?  It could happen before long, if mobile commerce trends continue along the same upward path.

For example:

  • 43% of cellphone users in the United States have smartphones, said Nielsen.
  • 38% of U.S. smartphone owners have made at least one purchase with it –
     and more than one-third of purchases occurred while a shopper was in a brick-and-mortar store, reported comScore in December.
  • Mobile devices accounted for 3.74% of U.S. online retail sales dollars in December 2011, a doubling of the 1.87% share in April, according to RichRelevance.  Also, 18% of all consumers browsed digital aisles with mobile devices in December, more than twice the under 9% share in April.  Mobile devices also accounted for more than 15% of shopping sessions in December.
  • Some 24% of all shoppers were on a mobile device this past Thanksgiving.  By mid-December, the average order value on a mobile device was $120 versus $110 for desktop orders, added RichRelevance.  Orders completed on Apple iPads or iPhones averaged $123 versus Android’s $101 – and Apple mobile devices were used on 92% of sales in December, up from 88% in April.
  • Online shopping rose 16.4% on Christmas Day 2011 versus the same day a year ago, and the dollar amount of online purchases via mobile devices soared 172.9%, IBM told The Associated Press.  Nearly 7% of purchases were made using an iPad.

For several reasons, F3 thinks it will be neither feasible nor advisable for supermarkets to consider one tactic taken by Best Buy – not to show product barcodes (at least on selected products) so shoppers can’t scan them with their smartphones at the shelf.  Compared with CE, food items are low-ticket, frequently replenished, and generally familiar to shoppers.  Barcodes are critical to supply chain integrity, in-stock conditions, and efficient checkouts – at least until RFID technology becomes affordable. 

Also, IT executives need to protect their networks against hackers, who might find ways to access systems via consumer-owned smartphones or tablets. Just 4% of these devices are equipped with security software, said Juniper Research.