Mobile technology is not only revolutionising how people shop, but how retailers find out what their customers are doing in stores and online.

A raft of emerging technologies look set to advance the process even further. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) systems such as Apple’s iBeacon, for example, can be used to deliver personalised, proximity-based promotions to shoppers’ smartphones as they move around stores.

Just last week, the food chain Eat announced it is to trial Weve’s mobile loyalty app Pouch, which connects to beacons in store, allowing it to target people’s phones when they enter one of its shops. 

But beacons are not the only method of enhancing customer service and gathering information about consumer behaviour. Enthusiasm for in-store Wi-Fi, click and collect and mobile technology is breaking down the remaining barriers between shopping channels. 

Supermarket Asda used a cross-channel campaign to encourage people into its physical stores for its first ‘Black Friday’ sale last November. (Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving, kicks off the Christmas shopping season in the US.)

Twitter campaign

The campaign, devised by iProspect, used Twitter, TV, press, radio and point-of-sale material to gain exposure, and was the first time Asda had used a hashtag to promote an in-store experience. The retailer ran Promoted Tweets targeting viewers of the ITV game show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, and used keyword and interest targeting to reach specific customer segments.

Appealing to groups such as American expats and British fans of US sports and culture, the campaign set out to attract advocates for the Black Friday phenomenon, which is an unknown quantity in the UK. Customers were also encouraged to make their own Vine videos and tweet Asda Black Friday-themed photos.

Customers expect store and online channels to be joined up and have little patience when they aren’t

As Asda social media manager Nadia Nami explains: “We wanted to generate buzz and anticipation to attract customers into stores with the promise of great deals, and thought Twitter was an ideal channel to do this due to its large potential reach and the ability to create a conversation around events.”

While the cross-channel nature of the campaign makes it difficult to attribute the results accurately, the retailer hints that it may repeat the digital elements. The @Asda tag dominated UK conversations on Black Friday, generating 5,000 mentions over a five-day period and hitting a potential 7.5 million timelines. Overall the campaign boosted the supermarket’s Twitter followers by almost 3,500.

“This campaign was the first time we had moved from using Twitter as a discreet part of our communications mix to putting it at the heart our planning,” says Nami. “In previous events, we would have mainly just done the listening on Twitter, but this activity showed us what can be achieved on this channel.”

Replicating the in-store experience

Going online to tempt shoppers into its stores worked well for Asda, but taking the opposite route can be fruitful too. Luxury jeweller Astley Clarke, for example, has been using personalisation software from SmartFocus to replicate the experience of shopping at its London flagship branch on its website.

“Serving relevant product recommendations is a particular challenge when dealing with a product as personal as jewellery,” says Astley Clarke’s former IT and web development manager Dan Coleman, adding that behavioural technology helps the brand to make relevant, effective suggestions. Since it was introduced, conversion rates on the site have improved by 60 per cent.

A recent survey by eBay, in association with Deloitte, has examined the relationship between on and offline retail and how they complement each other. It found that 34 per cent of consumers take photos of products with their phones to help them search for further information.

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Astley Clarke jewellery (inset) and the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent

Meanwhile, 35 per cent use their phones to search for local stores and 17 per cent make purchases on their phones. A high proportion – 80 per cent – use the internet to find product information before or during shopping trips.

“Customers are in the driving seat and expect convenient service which fits around their busy lives,” says eBay UK vice president Tanya Lawler. “They expect store and online channels to be joined up and have little patience if they aren’t.  

“For example, they want to collect in-store or return an item at a store, even if they bought online.” Among other services, the company provides ‘ship to store’ and ‘click and collect’ to its retail partners.

Joining up online and offline  

Facebook is another brand keen to strengthen relationships between on and offline retailing. Its head of retail global vertical strategy, Nicolas Franchet, says: “A challenge for many retailers is to maintain that personal touch with their customers, particularly when marketing on a mass scale and a world that’s moving beyond the store, with 65 per cent of shoppers using their phones when shopping.”

According to Facebook, more and more consumers are favouriting or bookmarking products on the site, using the social network to declare that they have bought certain products, or asking for fashion product recommendations from friends while they are shopping. Retailers are increasingly incorporating Facebook login and ‘like’ buttons on their own websites.

Sainsbury’s, for instance, has used Facebook to drive store traffic as part of promotions included in its Live Well for Less campaign. According to Facebook, 91 per cent of women aged 20 and above who saw the campaign did so through a combination of Facebook and TV advertising. Some 1.5 million who did not see it on TV did, however, see it on Facebook.

But while customers seem keen to embrace the possibilities offered by technology, some retailers are struggling to keep up.

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Sainsbury’s has used Facebook to drive store traffic

Eighty-five per cent of 2,000 consumers recently surveyed by The Bio Agency could not name a high street retailer with a really good digital experience in store. 

Nearly half (47 per cent) are keen to get more information about products online while in a bricks-and-mortar shop through scanning barcodes with their phones or reading other customers’ reviews of goods. 

Consumer demand

At the same time, the barriers separating online and bricks-and-mortar stores are being broken down by the consumers themselves.

Forty-seven per cent of smartphone owners have used their devices to browse for an item while in a physical store and 29 per cent have used them to buy a product when it is out of stock in-store, according to the latest eCustomerServiceIndex results from the IMRG and eDigitalResearch.

Reading product reviews and price checking are also popular among smartphone users, highlighting the growing relationship between store and mobile channels. One in five smartphone owners has bought a product online because the queue in a store was too long. Sales via smartphones and tablet devices now account for 27 per cent of the UK online retail market, having doubled over the past year.

For retailers, one obvious benefit of digital interaction is the chance to learn more about their customers – and not just by gleaning information from transactions and mobile handsets. Qualitative data can be found, too. Lend Lease, which owns the Bluewater out-of-town shopping and leisure centre in Kent, is using tools from SMG to measure the quality of experience encountered by the complex’s visitors.

“We put guest experience at the core of the business,” says Bluewater marketing manager Joanna Waterman. “Pretty much every strategic decision that is made is through the lens of ‘how does this affect guest experience?’

“Measuring that is tricky because we are essentially landlords for a whole host of retailers. What happens in the retailers’ stores is out of our control, though we can do our best to influence it.”

Measuring returns

At the moment, advertising hoardings around the centre urge customers to participate in its Penny For Your Thoughts campaign, a message reinforced by concierge staff who hand out chocolate coins to guests who do so. Taking part involves filling in an online survey, a task that most complete on a mobile device using the free O2 Wi-Fi available at Bluewater.

Customers are asked about what they did in the centre and how they rated their experiences, with questions worded carefully so that the answers can relate to the complex as a whole or to individual shops and restaurants.

The Bluewater team benefits from real-time sight of these questionnaires as they are filled in, and they respond immediately if customers report a negative experience. “Our aim is that, before they get back in their car to go home, we have contacted them,” says Waterman.                

The future’s mobile – and you can take that to the bank

Being able to pay for items via mobile devices could encourage consumers to use them far more widely in their relationships with retailers –  a prospect that some banks in particular endorse.

The Australian financial group Westpac, which is also the second-largest bank in New Zealand, has seen broad uptake of its mobile banking services. 

Indeed, the Westpac Mobile Banking Report, published in November last year, found that more than half of Kiwis now use mobile banking. 

Of these, more than 40 per cent believe that mobile transactions will account for most of their banking within three years. Two-thirds believe that this will occur within five years.

Ian Blair, general manager of retail banking at Westpac NZ, says: “Without a doubt, the uptake of mobile and, more broadly speaking, digital technology is rewriting some of the rules for banking, just as it has for other businesses.

“Customers want to do more and also have more control, particularly over the transactional side of banking, and this report highlights the very real benefits consumers feel they are getting as a result.”

The bank found that 71 per cent of those who use mobile banking want to do everything on a mobile device that is possible on a personal computer. 

Almost half would use mobile for contactless payment situations, such as receiving cash from a cashpoint.

For 54 per cent, they would consider any and all banking activity via their mobile device.

The big three challenges

1. Data consent: Provided they get something useful in return, most customers will consent to sharing their data. Bombarding them with pointless messages will only try their patience, but giving them timely discounts can strengthen the relationship.

2. Technological confusion: With acronyms such as QR, NFC and BLE, there’s no shortage of retail technology terms. So far none has emerged as the dominant channel, which means resources must be assigned carefully.

3. The single customer view: Customers expect shopping channels to be integrated seamlessly. For retailers, that’s easier said than done. If a single shopping journey involves an internet search and comparison, a mobile order and collection from a physical store, cracks in retail IT systems can soon become apparent.