I recently asked an audience of technology buffs how many of them used their smartphones to help them shop in physical retail stores. Over half of the hands shot up. Now for the surprise. "Those with your hands up, please keep them up if a salesperson has ever asked to help you to shop with your smartphone in any way." All of the hands went down.
Their response mirrors a discrepancy that prevails more generally across the U.S. today (even among non-techies): Customers increasingly use smartphones in stores to help them shop, but the brick-and-mortar retailers are ignoring them.
We can't go on like this much longer. For one thing, the retailers have no choice: In-aisle smartphone usage is here to stay. One in four Americans taps into the mobile Internet (or about 75 million, according to Forrester's Melissa Parrish). That number is roughly equivalent to the population of the U.S. eastern seaboard. Most of them own smartphones, and the vast majority of them (84%, according to our own recent survey) use those devices to help them accomplish at least one kind of activity related to shopping, such as searching for product information, taking photos as memory aids, checking prices, or "checking-in" to a location-based service. Barcode scanning and QR, or Quick Response, code scanning is not only popular but sticky: 85% of people we surveyed use their phones to scan products today at least as often as when they first tried it out.
Even Best Buy still provides almost no physical support for in-aisle mobile experience.
So if there is no chance at all that this is all going to blow over, how come more brick-and-mortar retailers aren't exploiting this new medium — say, to drive sales? In most cases because they are doing their best to clamber out of the recession: managing prices, inventory and costs, as consumers trade down and buy cheaper. In this context, mobile technology plays into their worst fears: "scan and scram," as the practice is rather dismally known. Or as a smartphone shopper in our observational field research described his personal experience, "You feel like you're kind of cheating the store by doing one of these [holds up phone as if to scan a barcode]. Because it's as if you're going to hold [the product], and look at it, but not buy it here."
So consumers and retailers are at odds on the whole subject of in-aisle smartphone shopping: with consumers loving it, wanting it, needing it, and retailers, by and large, hesitating to support it.
Even the most innovative retailers like Best Buy, which stakes brand equity on the success of its in-aisle mobile experience, still provide almost no physical support for it. Its QR code hangtag system, for instance, is progressive. Scan a product code with your phone, and you get instant product reviews and other detailed information. But as a whole, from a customer experience perspective, it's far too tentative. There are no on-shelf instructions (e.g., how to use a QR code, how to distinguish a UPC code from an internal company barcode); no in-store signage about the Best Buy mobile app; and little, if any, staff advocacy.
Most crucially, an attitude of explicit support for mobile shopping does not shape store culture among any brick-and-mortar retailers, including Best Buy. In its absence, a large swath of consumers is able to imagine that the relationship with retailers is not just ethically ambiguous but positively adversarial. Over a third of in-aisle smartphone users we polled said they felt at least somewhat "self-conscious" about scanning a barcode or QR code with a salesperson nearby.
Fortunately, we know pretty much how this is all going to turn out. Think back to where social media was only in 2006, when photos circulated on the Internet of a Dell laptop ablaze after exploding at a conference in Osaka, Japan. Dell recalled the Sony-made batteries but was initially slow to respond to angry bloggers. Then it formed a social media team, which found that if they singled out influential blogs and commented on negative posts with helpful links to the recall site, the grateful blog owners took on the rest of the damage control for them, evangelizing Dell's good deeds to their own flock of readers on Dell's behalf.
Then, as now, you've got to go with the flow. Dell responded effectively only because it understood that the days of its monolithic control over its messaging was over. Similarly, for retailers, the only way out, is through. They will eventually win back their aisles, but only when they can accept that they no longer fully control them. At that point, the current "moral discomfort" of both retailers and smartphone-equipped customers will fade into the past: growing pains of a new practice for which norms have not been agreed upon.
This is a future that innovative retailers should want to embrace now, rather than later. Because with change, comes opportunity. Those who get in the game today can differentiate themselves, powerfully, by positive association with the new technology. Simply asking, "Did you know you can use your smartphone to help you shop here today?" will go a long way to set the relationship back on the right path. One of the great brand-building moments of the next decade is available, right now, to the first company who can design a place that shouts "smartphones welcome here." The chance will not come again.