At a panel called Retail Is Going Mobile, which took place during a block of panels about retailing (#mobilesaturday) at SXSW Interactive on Saturday, an executive from Walmart, along with CEOs of various mobile shopping apps, offered a glimpse into the way mobile technology is changing the retail experience today, and where this technology may take us in the future.
Christopher Mason, CEO and co-founder of mobile commerce platform creator Branding Brand, kicked off the panel with a brief history of mobile retailing. One statistic Mason pointed out is that, surprisingly, for all the talk about the importance of mobile devices in reshaping the consumer experience, many retailers are behind with their mobile technology. To that end, Mason said that, of the top 500 retailers, 60% have a mobile consumer interface. This means, he noted, that for the first time, the relationship between the customer and the retailer is being shaped in a world where "the customer is ahead of the retailer."
Wal-mart's Wendy Bergh, who is senior director of mobile and digital strategy for the big box retailer, said her focus has been on the in-store experience that can be created through mobile apps. What it's about at Wal-mart, she said, is taking advantage of the way "mobile can really bring the Web to the store." Bergh explain that Wal-mart has focused on improving customers' experiences once they're in the store with their mobile apps, as opposed to using mobile as a way to bring customers in. To that end, the store has launched things like it's price checker app, which allows customers to get prices and stock information about products, once they're in the store.
For Aaron Emigh, co-founder and CTO of mobile shopping app Shopkick, the philosophy is that "mobile offers a unique interface into the physical world." The popularity of Shopkick, which is an app that works with multiple retailers and offers customers rewards for going into stores, is something, Emigh said, that has proven "small incentives can produce a profound difference in consumer behavior."
As much change is afoot, though, all the panelists returned, in some way, to Mason's initial point that many retailers are behind in this area. This means for all the possibilities that exist for the way mobile technology can completely alter the retail experience, change will likely come slowly. Although the technology may exist to do many things--Bergh noted how Wal-mart is working on a scan-and-go app, which will allow customers to scan the barcodes of the items they want with their smart phone and then pay for them at the self checkout kiosks--getting the technology to sync with existing modes of doing business is tricky.
Emigh, for his part, said he thinks too much emphasis has been placed on the mobile wallet--forthcoming technology which will allow people to scan and pay for products with smart phones programmed with their credit card information--and payment technologies on the whole. He said that consumers are, right now, happy to pay for things with their credit cards and that the real change will come when the mobile wallet is integrated with something else. On this note, he said that Shopkick has found success, he thinks, because it's an app that works across retailers; he thinks customers do not want specific shopping apps for specific stores.
So what's ahead? Mason pointed to some futuristic technology that's already here, such as a program Sephora does, which has a unique in-store component. The cosmetics retailer has a "skin scanner" that gives customers a personalized id with information on their unique skin tone. That id, when used Sephora's mobile app, will alert customers to products that are ideal for people with their specific coloring. This kind of user experience, Mason feels, is where mobile retailing is headed. He sees mobile retailing apps focusing on using our personal information to improve and personalize the in-store experience, such as, say, alerting a customer how many pairs of shoes are in stock in their size when they enter the shoe store.
Emigh also thinks mobile retail is going to move toward "radical personalization" and give consumers the advice they want as they shop.