Retail, a gala event where consumer meets product, has been the heart of our economic fabric for hundreds of years. From the markets and bazaars of antiquity to mass merchant mega chains of today, the basic principles have remained the same: get customers into the store, in front of the items they want and up to the counter for purchase. While these tenets will never change, an increasingly costly war with e-commerce has forced retailers to innovate to survive, using mobile technologies to "enhance and personalize" the shopping experience.
Mobile is a retail tradition. Did you know that the first mobile computers were used by grocers to automate product orders? These early devices were rolling carts that actually consisted of a car battery, adding machine and tape recorder. Mobile? Maybe not by our current definition of the word, but you only need to look in your pocket to see the fruits of this first step into portable computing.
So how do you really innovate on thousands of years of counters, clerks and storefronts? The answer is not to change the store, but to focus on the changing consumer. Retailers have a long history of pioneering mobile technology — e.g., barcode scanners, wireless networks, portable printers — but their newest "gadget of choice" is the smartphone most consumers carry with them everywhere.
The digital conversation begins the moment a consumer and their device enter the store. Using GPS locating and mobile apps, retailers can instantly offer discounts, rewards or advice, straight to the phones, based on customer preferences. Stores can go a step further by targeting participating customers near the store, with enticing offers and even driving directions. Think of it as the digital age answer to a sandwich board.
Once inside the store, the mobile app becomes a personalized guide to the consumer. In addition to discounts, a mobile app can locate products, manage shopping lists, offer advice and complementary upsell items without that awkward "Can I help you with anything?" conversation.
The third step is getting consumers "up to the counter" for purchase. But what if you could bring the counter to the customer. Through digital wallets and wireless checkout available via that same smartphone, consumers can bypass lines, make faster purchases and get on with their lives.
At every step in the retail process, a mobile app can accelerate purchasing through the mobile wizardry consumers bring into the store. It may seem like a gimmick to some, but you need only look to the nearest Apple Store to see how mobile embracing mobile can reinvigorate retail and enhance the image of a brand. By reducing cost and improving the consumer experience, retail can continue to give the age-old tradition of counters and cash registers a modern, competitive edge.
Greg Henry is vice president of product development at DecisionPoint Systems, a provider and integrator of enterprise mobility, wireless applications and RFID solutions.