Monday, February 11, 2008

Guessing the impact of mobile media at retail

I've been watching a conversation at RetailWire about mobile device integration develop for a few days. It seems like the data is finally in and most opinions are settled, and I wanted to draw some attention to what the folks in the discussion -- arguably some of the better-informed, savvy retail analysts and consultants out there -- are saying about the future of mobile phones and devices for the typical retailer. To begin with, Amanda Ferrante, Assistant Editor for the website Retail TouchPoints, asked what seemed like a simple enough question: Within the next five years, what percentage of Americans will have used mobile devices as part of their shopping experience?

Surprisingly, as you can see from the chart, 40% of those who responded think that within five years, at least 60% of shoppers will be using mobile phones to aid and improve their experiences. Almost another 30% of respondents think that it 40-60% of shoppers will do so. No matter how you slice it, these people think that mobile integration is going to be big, soon.

I'm not quite so sure. Yes, I've had a WAP-capable phone since 1999, and I clearly remember trying to do some comparison shopping while at a Barnes & Noble store. Most clearly, I remember the bewildered look of the clerk as I tried to explain that was selling the same book for less, and I wanted the lower price. Needless to say, the five or six lines of text on the tiny black-and-white screen wasn't the best visual aid to help make a compelling argument.

Anyway, the point is that I've been hoping for better use of mobile devices by retailers for a while. And despite nearly a decade of technological advances, trying to use mobile in a store today isn't much different than it was in 1999. Sure, the mobile Internet is now faster, prettier, and generally more like the regular Internet than ever before (heck, on an iPhone it is the real Internet). But very few are using their devices to try and connect the virtual and real worlds, which I think is a major component of all of these retail-oriented programs I've been reading about and waiting for.

Will mobile devices become a big part of the shopping experience? Sure. We all have them. They keep getting more useful (we can use them as phones, computers, GPS tracking systems, and even payment devices right now). And for the most part, they work pretty well. But in 5 years I expect things to look much the same as they do now: people carrying around gadgets, stores talking about using said gadgets to get better access to the customer and provide better service, and deployments of useful and usable in-store mobile integration systems still very few and far between.

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