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Getting smart about smartphones

I recently had the chance to observe and talk with some tweens and teens about their smartphone use. You guessed it: it’s first and foremost about communicating with their friends and, yes, even with parents and other family members. Shopping runs a good second. Anyone targeting this particular age group must think of communication as a “use case” for smartphones. 

In “Get Smart: Considerations for the Retailer’s Smartphone Strategy,” the Shop.org Think Tank recently wrapped up some thinking they’ve been doing about what the smartphone means to shopping. As retailers, we’re trained to think in terms of sales, so much is said about the desktop and tablet experiences that appear more conducive to transactions. Forrester Research’s conclusion that retailers saw just $12 billion in sales directly on smartphones last year — the equivalent of 3% of total U.S. e-commerce dollars — simply doesn’t sound that impressive.  

As it turns out, the smartphone is incredibly important to the shopping experience, but more often than not, it actively supports sales that ultimately happen in-store or online via a desktop or tablet device. What’s holding back more sales via smartphones? To start, checkout is often challenging at best on a smaller screen. The real issue, however, is that consumers often aren’t ready to buy when they’re shopping on their smartphone. Think about it; if you’re looking for a gift for a friend while you’re out and about, what’s the first thing you reach for? Your smartphone — to find gift ideas, research the product, compare prices, read customer reviews, locate a nearby retailer, get directions and maybe even snap a photo and tweet about it. Google found that 9 out of 10 smartphone shoppers consult their mobile device as part of “pre-shopping activities.” If retailers ignore how consumers use their smartphones to shop, they are likely to greatly undervalue the contribution of the smartphone to sales happening today. If so, they’re also likely to underinvest in the smartphone experience. A poor smartphone experience in turn will disappoint customers, hamper sales via other touch points and generally leave money on the table. 

Instead, retailers need to research and understand how their customers use the smartphone to shop — those three or four primary customer “use cases” — and then identify obstacles they face in accomplishing those tasks. Customer use cases may include finding local shopping information, opening a marketing email on their phone and even buying right on their device. 

How should retailers get started? The Think Tank recommends first examining in detail your smartphone visitors — for example, who these users are, what they do on the site, how the site renders for them. This visitor analysis will prescribe not only the type of smartphone user experience needed, but also how much time and budget the online marketing team should devote to managing, monitoring and enhancing this area. Development strategies will vary, too. For some, responsive design will be the right choice. For others, alternative solutions may be the right fit. 

In all of this, metrics are still paramount — but now they need to include both traditional and new metrics tuned to the smartphone user and use case. Thinking back to that $12 billion in smartphone sales last year, my sense is that sales influenced by smartphone research and shopping are actually much larger. Shifting from thinking about “traffic” and instead to “the consumer” is particularly important. As you can see, metrics matter greatly — but they have to be the right metrics. 

The bottom line: make sure your customer’s smartphone experience meshes with the experience you provide him or her via desktop and tablet devices and even in-store. Seize the opportunity that the smartphone experience presents and you’ll be investing significantly in a long-term relationship with your customer. 

Vicki Cantrell works with members of the Shop.org Think Tank and is senior vice president for communities at the National Retail Federation and executive director of NRF’s Shop.org division.