Keith Anderson of RetailNet, a leading retail market research firm, tweeted an interesting story today about Wal-Mart's mobile app. We all know that brick-and-mortar retailers have been fighting a growing "showrooming" trend - the notion that consumers visit stores to see, touch, and interact with a product, but then purchase on-line from an e-commerce company such as Amazon. Retailers have been working hard on strategies to counter that threat. Wal-Mart recently updated its app to improve the "Store Mode" element. That aspect of the mobile app tries to help consumers navigate the store to find what they desire. The "Store Mode" includes the local advertising circular, a shopping list function, maps of the store layout, and a QR code scanner. What is interesting about the results to date for this updated app? According to this article, Wal-Mart reports that, "12% of its m-commerce sales occur while customers are in stores, showing that consumers are using their smartphones to buy from Wal-Mart what Wal-Mart does not have in stock, or perhaps purchase an item they don’t feel like carrying home, like a big-screen TV." In sum, a strong mobile app may help protect against the tendency for consumers to drift toward Amazon or another online player for their purchases.
We all know that many retailer apps left a great deal to be desired over the past few years. However, they have been improving. Retailers have added functionality that does help consumers navigate the stores more easily and much, much more. For instance, take this initiative at Nieman Marcus, described in this article on springwise.com:
The US luxury retail store is now trialling its NM Service app, which provides sales associates with consumer data they can act upon in real time. Developed by Signature Labs Inc, the app can be downloaded for free from the App Store. Customers can then select to “opt-in” to participate in the service, and a sensor at a Neiman Marcus store will detect when they walk through the door and launch the app. NM Service will provide information on new products and future events taking place at the outlet, as well as listing the sales staff currently instore. Those sales assistants can also have a version of the app tailored to them, alerting them when a participating customer enters the store. Sales assistants will also be presented with information on the customer’s previous purchases at Neiman Marcus outlets and their online shopping history, and the app will display an image from the customer’s Facebook page so that they can be easily identified. Both customers and sales associates are able to send messages to each other.
These two examples stand at opposite ends of the spectrum: Wal-mart is the classic low-cost player, while Nieman Marcus is a highly differentiated luxury retailer. However, these examples demonstrate that mobile strategies can be used not only to protect against the disruptive threat of online commerce, but also to enhance the in-store shopping experience. People still enjoy visiting brick-and-mortar stores to see, feel, and try on items. If retailers can enhance that visit and provide customers the information they want when they want it, they can compete more effectively not only against online players, but also against their direct brick and mortar rivals.