How Mobile Connects The Multichannel Customer

Jul 01, 2011 9:30 PM  By

While it’s taken longer than many expected for U.S. consumers — and merchants — to connect with smartphone technology, mobile devices are now changing the way people shop. The phones offer the power of a PC in the consumer’s palm, plus the functionality of a phone and camera.

That makes it easy for mobile shoppers to browse and buy goods at any time, from virtually any place. Then again, it’s also easier for them to quickly compare prices and jump to other sites to make a purchase.

And this can be a problem, especially for bricks-and-mortar retailers. Consumers can visit stores to check out products, and then use their smartphones to comparison shop and make a purchase if they find a better deal. “The last thing you want to do is be a showroom for an online retailer,” says Don Eames, vice president-stores for high-tech gifts and gadgets cataloger/retailer Brookstone.

But surprisingly, store retailers are reaping the benefits of new mobile developments. Many say smartphones are akin to virtual sales clerks that help drive instore sales. And multichannel retailers are finding that mobile enables them to better link channels while providing new branding and selling opportunities.

Focusing on mobile video

Online videos make a huge impact on the path of purchase. And when you put the power of video into a web-enabled mobile device, it can help close the sale while the customer is in the store.

Vitamin Shoppe has been testing mobile video for about a year with a variety of products across categories. The nutritional supplements merchant’s mobile videos are designed to help store consumers make a buying decision, says director of ecommerce Scott Anderson.

“Buying vitamins and supplements is not like shopping for a shirt or a blouse, where you basically know what you’re going to buy,” Anderson says. For instance, there’s a certain amount of education and research involved in buying homeopathic remedies such as arnica, a herb that boasts anti-inflammatory properties.

Customers frequently have questions about what products work best and how to take them, Anderson says, “like, is a sublingual (under the tongue) remedy the right choice, or a rub? And what’s the difference?”

Providing a video that shoppers can view immediately — or later — on their smartphones can deliver the information needed to make a purchase, he says.

How does Vitamin Shoppe direct store shoppers to the videos? Working with video commerce system vendor Liveclicker, the retailer has QR codes incorporated into certain store displays. The shopper scans the quick response code (the boxy, funky-looking 2D barcodes that are starting to pop up everywhere) with his or her smartphone to be directed to the site hosting the video for the corresponding product.

Because of tight regulations regarding its industry, Vitamin Shoppe creates its own videos that describe several types of products. This way, too, instead of doing a video for every product, it can focus on categories. The videos reside on the merchant’s website as part of Liveclicker’s hosting package. But some retailers, such as Brookstone, simply use YouTube to host their videos for free.

Controlling the information shoppers see

Brookstone began dabbling with QR codes in April. As a merchant that carries a lot of high-tech items, it made sense for Brookstone to implement a mobile strategy that could also be used to help consumers in stores, Eames says.

Another key reason was to keep potential “poachers” from scanning traditional UPC barcodes in its stores with Amazon.com‘s Price Check app to see if the product could be purchased at Amazon.com, and then buying that product from the ecommerce giant if they found it for less.

“We like to think consumers who are doing that are doing it more for technology reasons rather than to get a better price,” Eames says. But the opportunity to use QR codes to sell is pretty significant for store retailers, he notes.

When you give the consumer the opportunity to scan a QR code, you can control what information the customer receives. “The UPC code technology brings up the same thing as the rest of your local competitors,” Eames says.

“The QR code doesn’t just bring you to a price location: It brings you to something you can use to educate the customer and make him smarter.”

For example, Brookstone uses some of its in-store QR codes to take users to a product page on its website. In other cases, it brings the customer to a YouTube product video.

Brookstone’s QR code for its AR Drone helicopter, a remote-controlled toy you can fly with an iPad, brings the customer to a video so he can understand what the product does. The same video also plays in the stores, but with the QR code technology, Eames says, the customer can take that video home.

Ratings and reviews get mobile

Like Brookstone and Vitamin Shoppe, Bakers Shoes, a 100-year-old footwear merchant with more than 230 stores nationwide, uses instore QR codes to drive shoppers to mobile videos to learn more about the products.

“Video is clearly one of the ways that we can help our customer validate her purchase,” says Scott Cohn, director of merchandising and sales for the Bakers Direct unit of Bakers Footwear Group.

For instance, Bakers takes the videos it shoots at fashion shows and embeds verbiage such as “buy this shoe now” or “get the look” onto them. Customers can scan the QR codes to be able to see the shoe in action. “The more we can show how a shoe will look on her foot, the more likely we are to convert the sale,” Cohn says.

Another way to convert the sale: Make sure your ratings and reviews are mobile friendly. Most reviews packages are formatted so they automatically conform to mobile devices, but test yours to check.

A store sales clerk can only tell — or sell — a shopper so much, Cohn says. A customer considering a specific shoe is likely to go to the Bakers website or mobile site, search for the shoe, and read what others have to say about it.

As important as it is to carry product information over to your mobile site, you need that third-person voice to help guide the path to purchase that’s being made in a store, Cohn says. “The customer needs as much validation as possible that the product is going to make her look good.”

Tapping into tablets

Tablets such as the iPad are also starting to change the way people shop. While the iPad, BlackBerry’s Playbook and the numerous Android-based tablets use cellular or wireless technology for Internet connectivity, they can’t be used to make a phone call — and it’s not easy to use them to scan QR codes. But with a much larger touch screen than a smartphone’s, it’s easier to shop — or research — on a tablet.

As such, tablets offer users an experience different from smartphones. “The smartphone user has more of a ‘now’ kind of action — I need to find a location, I need to look up my status at a store — with the phone, it’s quick and dirty, in and out,” says Steve Deller, founder/CEO of ecommerce platform provider Virid.

The iPad user, he notes, is more likely to be sitting down at a desk or on the sofa and looking for a richer browsing experience. “Even though both types of devices are mobile and portable, the behavior with the devices is different,” Deller says.

Tablet app makers have taken notice, too: Several options have emerged for putting catalogs into cyberspace. Affiliate marketplace TheFind.com launched a catalog app for tablets so its retail partners could shop from catalog pages.

And newer apps such as Coffee Table and Catalog Spree by Padopolous have enabled consumers to subscribe to digital catalogs of their choice, then flip through and shop from them on their iPads.

Outdoor apparel merchant Filson launched a digital catalog in April through the Catalog Spree app. “It’s still in the early days for us, but we’re seeing that it delivers an immersive shopping experience,” says Harold Egler, Filson’s vice president-direct sales. “It’s seamless, the app was developed so the print catalog renders well with the iPad, and the shoppers are dropped right into Filson.com when they want to make a purchase.”

With Catalog Spree, Filson is a part of a catalog library, so it can extend its reach beyond its customer base, Egler says. Filson promotes its Catalog Spree partnership on its catalog sign-up page, in the footer of its website and in its email marketing. It plans to promote it soon in the Filson catalog.

For Bakers, “the iPad is quickly becoming the number-two nonpersonal-computer used to access our site,” says Cohn. “Customers want to know they’ll have the same functionality with their iPads and other devices as they will with the main ecommerce site, he says. That’s why Bakers has been working with Virid on redesigning its site for an HTML5-based platform.

HTML5 is a revision of the standard HTML (see the sidebar “High-five for HTML5?” on page 23) that allows for more cross-browser compatibility.

Cohn says customers accessing Bakers’ site via tablets and smartphones are already taking advantage of HTML5′s cookieless technology. Instead of a cookie, information from the web can be stored locally to a database for offline viewing with HTML5.

“So a customer can be sitting in a park with her bridesmaids without an Internet connection, and she can take out her iPad and they can choose what kind of shoes they want to wear at the wedding,” Cohn says. “It just gives the customer an even better experience.”

Photos: Scott Ferguson

HIGH-FIVE for HTML5?

CUSTOMERS ARE NO LONGER FINDING YOUR WEBSITE only via browsers such as Internet Explorer, FireFox and Safari. They are coming in through smartphones and portable tablet computers, and your site may not be compatible with those devices.

That’s why you may want to consider a site redesign on an HTML5-based platform. It’s a good idea to take advantage of HTML5, even if you’re not yet ready for all it has to offer, says Steve Deller, founder/CEO of ecommerce platform provider Virid. “That way, when more elements of HTML5 become available, you’ll have the framework in place.”

HTML5 is a revision of HTML, which has been the standard for web developers since 1997. It allows a new way to structure and present content on the web, and will bring new opportunities and cautions for retailers to merchandise products and engage customers.

The newer language addresses issues existing in earlier versions of HTML by creating semantic naming of common elements in a web page, such as headings, footers, navigation and main content elements.

The most radical aspect of HTML5, Deller says, is a new element called the “canvas,” which lets developers create content and graphics in real-time in the browser. It makes it possible to take images and text and overlay them on top of each other in a single area of the page. Developers can then literally draw lines and shapes, and add video and manipulation of these elements to create custom features for shoppers.

“The best promises of HTML5 from a developer’s standpoint are more structure and cleaner development,” says Eric Best, founder/CEO of platform provider Mercent. “The new tags that are used make it easier for developers to understand.” Instead of seven different ways to implement video, for example, “there’s a standardized method.”

Best says other benefits include cross-browser compatibility. There is less variability, so if you’re redesigning with HTML5, your upfront development costs will be lower.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to HTML5, says Brian Horakh, founder/CEO of ecommerce platform provider Zoovy: The ability to add video to devices like the iPad and iPhone, which do not support flash. — TP

QR CODES creep into catalogs

QR CODES SEEM TO BE CATCHING ON FOR RETAIL STORE SIGNAGE, and some merchants are incorporating them in their print catalogs. Brookstone used four QR codes on the back cover of its May 2011 catalog. The code scanned most was for directions to its 300-plus stores; other QR codes led to the mobile site, its Facebook page, and to call Brookstone’s customer service.

“If you put QR codes on a direct mail piece, it extends its coffee table life,” says Don Eames, Brookstone’s vice president-stores. “And that means your postage and printing has a much better value.”

Hospitality industry apparel merchant Cintas Corp. included a QR code in its 2011 Uniform Book, which mailed in June. “One of our main goals for this year’s catalog was to introduce new technology into the book,” says Tracia Clendenen, product marketing manager for Cintas.

Cintas originally wanted to put QR codes throughout the catalog, “but due to the size requirements of the artwork, we could only place it on the table of contents,” Clendenen says. (Experts recommend using a minimum size of 32 × 32 mm for QR codes to guarantee that all camera phones on the market can properly read the barcode, although newer phones can read smaller codes.)

The QR code Cintas included in the catalog drove readers to a website with more than 15 different product videos. The videos ranged in topic from merchandising tips and apparel collection videos to fit guidelines and the process of recycling polyester.

A QR code is “a fun way to get customers on the web to view content,” Clendenen says. In the future, she notes, “we may be able to use the QR codes in a new way.” — TP/JT