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BrainTrust Query: So What's With Smartphones?

February 1, 2012

Those of us who are frequent contributors/readers of RetailWire are constantly being pointed to social media, smartphones, QR codes and any of a number of other new technologies as both the wave of the future and the demise of retail as we know it. As a frequent grocery shopper, I wonder what all the excitement is about. The last few times I've gone to my Publix or Kroger, I haven't seen anyone using smartphones or tablets for their shopping and I'm keeping an eye out.

Now you might attribute that to my being in Atlanta, where we like to think the pace of life is a bit slower. But we are pretty far along the technology adaptation curve here — it's the Georgia Tech influence and the fact that I don't believe we have any native Atlantans where I live. Or it might be a disconnect with the survey takers releasing reports about mobile shopping — many have a vested interest in showing that these new tools are critical to retailing's future.

Consider first that about a third of Americans 13 and older own a smartphone — a large percentage, if not overwhelming (although it is likely to grow, at least in the near future).

An interesting article published by Mobile Commerce Daily cited a few relevant "facts":

  • PayPal predicted last fall that 67 percent of consumers would make a holiday purchase via mobile;
  • InMobi reported that almost 60 million consumers would shop with their mobile phones on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

In contrast, IBM reported that:

  • 6.6 percent of sales on Black Friday were made via mobile phone;
  • About one percent of sales came via referral from Facebook.

These figures are clearly contradictory and paint a very different picture of mobile usage. It's not clear that mobile or social media is being used much. Next, consider another recent study from students at LIM College in New York, "Shopping Trends Among 18-25 Year Olds":

  • 68 percent of 18-25 year-olds would much rather shop in stores than use digital technology;
  • 66 percent use the web for gathering information;
  • Only 23 percent shop from a tablet or smartphone;
  • 88 percent do not want to shop through Facebook or Twitter.

As a CPG researcher, two points stand out to me. First, we need to realize that the questions generating these figures are based on "shopping," presumably including much more than grocery shopping, which I'm betting represents the bulk of the transactions in the universe of "shopping" occasions.

Second, hard shopping data and survey results seem to be in conflict with survey results dramatically overestimating the use of phones for shopping.

Discussion Questions:

Discussion Questions: Are we over-thinking the use of mobile technology for grocery shopping and assuming it is going to be a much bigger opportunity than it will really be? Is the shopping market that is likely to be affected by social media and smartphone usage limited to durables (fashion, media, appliances, etc.), or is grocery also going to need to pick up the pace?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

In three years time, how prevalent will mobile shopping be in grocery channel trips?


Whether we are over-thinking or not, retailers fail to adopt it at their own peril. Given that retailers will never be able to lead, let alone keep up, with consumer adoption of devices, software, and applications, it's important that retailers experiment with and hone their digital skills. What is already happening in consumer electronics and fashion will eventually come to grocery. Grocers need to be prepared.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Mobile is clearly going to be a channel for retailers, including grocery and National CPG brands, to connect with their customers. The survey data in this article appears to be greatly influenced by the group running the survey. A mobile association reporting on the use of mobile shopping? Those numbers are certainly ones they aspire to reach. They are, however, correct that mobile will be a channel. How fast it grows is tough to predict.

I still enjoy shopping in a store, although I will admit my purchases through my kindle have grown since Christmas. Does mobile phone shopping get leapfrogged by tablets?

John Boccuzzi, Jr., Managing Partner, Boccuzzi, LLC

Mobile will become the primary means of consumer online access within 5-10 years. The over thinking is that retailers approach mobile commerce as a "gee whiz" phenomenon, when actually it will be an ordinary part of daily life.

Dan Berthiaume, Editor, Independent consultant

Market research is notoriously influenced by the agenda of the sponsor. Okay, I get that.

Let's focus on the one third of the adults that currently own a smart phone. Surely, it will be one half before long, then two thirds. Each one of these smartphone users is currently learning how to exploit the phone in their normal day to day activities: meeting friends, staying in touch, going from place to place, paying bills, etc. Certainly shopping is on the list of day to day activities.

When I shop, even for groceries, I want to know where the item is in the store, whether there is coupon, and what the price is. Often I find myself reading the labels to discover how much sugar or salt or other nefarious things have been mixed in. Then I want the price. Sometimes I want to know what would go well with an interesting item. These are precious pieces of information that I want when I want them. I want my answers from my device rather than finding an associate or squinting at a label.

When it comes to checking out, please don't make me stand in line for those self checkouts. I'd like to scan the items while I am shopping so I can see how much I've spent and work my way into the express lane.

And I am 67!!!

I'm waiting for retailers of all sizes and shapes to recognize that it is time to take self-service to the next level with brilliant apps that enhance my experience.

Bill Robinson, Principal, Bill Robinson Associates

Viva la Difference! Fashion garments and food items come from slightly different planets. When you know what a "cool" purse -- or appliance -- looks like, or how your peer group feels about it, mobile technology shortens the decision process. Viva smart phone usage!

Food, since it is more perishable, can frequently create a need for more personal involvement. Many people, despite their grumblings, like to browse among the wide and unique assortments of food and groceries for themselves, check out the freshness by their own personal standards, and touch the products that they are going to eat. In addition, for many people there is a "lift" in just being among other people and observing how they decide food choices.

Grocers may embrace more mobile technology in the future, but only if they feel they must to preserve their share of market.

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

Having conducted consumer research for the past 25 years among supermarket shoppers, I can tell you that most grocery shoppers are very bad at predicting their own behavior. As just one example, for years, shoppers were telling us how incredibly important health and nutrition was in their grocery shopping mentality, during which time carbonated beverages and salty snacks flourished and healthy, less tasty items struggled and failed. It has only been recently with the advent of shelf tag programs and improved product selection that we have seen significant traction at the checkout in the way of increased healthy food sales.

I would assume that surveys that ask grocery shoppers about their intent to use mobile as a payment device or shopping aid are yielding similar results. I'm certain shoppers truly aspire to use their mobile device in the store. But intentions often fall short of reality. My take is that hype and good intentions always precede reality. As content and incentives in mobile grocery shopping increase, so will actual use of mobile devices in store.

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Mark Heckman, Principal, Mark Heckman Consulting

Viewing the weekly circular on your mobile phone will be somewhat of a common behavior -- in 3 years, not now. Those who embrace the media channel will push forward to provide this interface. At the same time, newspaper circulation continues to go down with no end in sight beyond shutting doors (sad). So yes, mobile technology will be supportive of the grocery shopping experience, but it is much more relevant in hard goods (appliances and electronics) and soft goods (apparel, shoes, etc.).

The key to conversion and how to bridge the gap in the stats shared is real-time processing of transactions from the phone -- not just browsing. If you ask me if I shop and spend on my phone, the answer is no. If you ask me if I browse using my smart phone, the answer is yes. What defines shopping? True conversion, and until we get phones that have real-time swipe capability and not processing from a "cloud" to select, order and complete a transaction using a preferred tender, the percent of those actually converting to a sale will be less than what is expected.

David Slavick, Director, Loyalty & Retention, FTD.com

Yes, we are over thinking the use of mobile technology. We try to pigeon hole every technology that comes down the road and don't look at behavior. One of Steve Jobs' talents was that he didn't think about the devices first, he thought about behavior.

The challenge that all retailers face (grocery and otherwise) is not that people will come to the store and use their smartphones, but that the people will come to the store at all. Today's statistics are irrelevant. People will adapt to the tools that are provided. Those quizzed can't imagine what they would do in 10 years, 5 years or even next year. Whose behavior hasn't changed dramatically and well beyond imagination as phones became mobile phones, which then became smartphones? As desktops became laptops, then became notebooks, then became tablets?

There is a great story from Mark Cuban, "A company developed a product that was not only best in its class, but also technically far ahead of its competition. It created a better way of offering its service, and customers loved it and paid for it.

"Then it made a fatal mistake. It asked its customers what features they wanted to see in the product, and they delivered on those features. Unfortunately for this company, its competitors didn't ask customers what they wanted. Instead, they had a vision of ways that business could be done differently and, as a result, better. Customers didn't really see the value or need until they saw the new product. When they tried it, they loved it."

All retailers better start thinking about how business could be done DIFFERENTLY.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

As a general rule, humans still have a primal instinct to "hunt and gather" food and clothing. These items will be hard to fully e-commerce-enable or enhance as no smartphone can tell us if a fruit is still ripe or a garment fits snugly.

Ed Dunn, Founder, (Stealth Operation)

Okay, I'll be the contrarian. I don't want to interact with anything in the grocery store. I want to get in, find what I want at a reasonable price (that's getting harder) and get out. I'm just not sure that my smartphone is going to help me with that....

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

There's an adage that a rising tide lifts all boats, that increasing consumption of a consumer technology means increasing commerce. But the tide never rises as quickly as pundits predict. Game console penetration did not cause gaming to become a large advertising medium, social shopping lags social media use, and even the internet was much more about content before it became commerce.

Mobile shopping is growing faster than online, but it was only $6 billion, or just 2 percent of overall e-commerce sales last year, according to Forrester. It is an infinitesimal proportion of overall commerce.

Mobile commerce is thriving in some corners, but those corners don't include grocery. eBay and Amazon account for well over half of mobile shopping transactions. Both companies have made searching products simpler and have eased checkout through PayPal or one-click payments.

Grocery, on the other hand, has yet to embrace search technology, even way finding in large stores. Self-checkout has modest use, but other than Stop & Shop/Modiv, it's been a fixed rather than mobile platform.

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Dan Frechtling, SVP Product and Marketing, CMO, G2 Web Services

At PRS, we recently conducted research into smartphone usage and learned that although most smartphone shopping activity is done within the technology, clothing and grocery category, there are several categories where mobile shopping is gaining traction such as:

Cosmetics (35%)
Office supplies (27%)
Over-the-Counter Medication (26%)
On-the-go-coffee (26%)
Home Decor Items (26%)
Cleaning Products (22%)
Pet Supplies (22%)

Marketers would do well to ensure that they understand the role of smartphones and digital content -- relative to packaging and POS materials -- in the shopping process within their categories. They need to ensure that all their communications are complementing each other and working together. Retailers should now consider how they set their shelves and create merchandising that is smartphone friendly.


I haven't seen any recent data on this, but last time I looked, grocery shopping is considered "a chore" by most folks. Get in and get out is what they want -- and not just the males. Plus, the grocery shopping trip is much more complex than a durables trip -- buying a flat screen TV, for example. By that I mean a basket full of items versus one item.

Plus plus, brand and store familiarity are efficiency tools used by grocery shoppers. A better application of m-commerce is when the shopper needs to learn more about the item, including price at competitors. Shoppers will take the time to do the research when the ticket is hefty.

I think we are a little bitten by the tech bug in our personal and business lives, and may be extrapolating a wished-for behavior into the grocery aisles. There must be useful applications for smartphones in the food channel. It will be interesting to see who gets what first.

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Dan Raftery, President, Raftery Resource Network Inc.

I love the question because grocery shopping is different; those of us who do it regularly know we want to get in, get out, and move on with our lives. As an industry we have a tendency to take the technology to literally when it's applied to grocery (here's a cool app to build a shopping list -- again) instead of viewing it through the shopper's lens. What the shopper may want to accomplish on a smartphone or an iPad may or may not take place in a store or on a grocery website. The ZMOT work we did with Google showed that grocery shoppers use an average of 7.3 media nodes to make a purchase decision: We should first figure out what those nodes are, when they occur in the purchase cycle and how to improve that experience, and then ask the question of which technology to apply to the problem. We're constantly backwards, which is why you have QR experiences that are cumbersome dead ends, mobile websites that don't load and endless retail kiosks languishing in dusty corners. I believe mobile is incredibly important across categories but it's work may be done outside the store.

Lisa Bradner, Chief Strategy Officer, Geomentum/Shopper Sciences

The operative word is "shopping" (not to be confused with purchasing). To me, shopping includes navigating the store environment, accessing ratings, reviews, product specs, and coupons, checking online or in-store availability, etc. Mobile would seem to play a growing role in the shopping realm across multiple categories. Mobile transactions are another thing. That's where I think grocery stats would drop off considerably in relation to other categories.

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Carol Spieckerman, President, Spieckerman Retail

Over thinking? Maybe. Maybe we're over thinking the wrong things. The two points that stick out are: 68 percent of 18-25 year olds would much rather shop in stores than use digital technology; and 66 percent use the web for gathering information.

Then take note of Cathy Hotka's point; I don't think she's alone in her thinking. Consider that we might want digital or mobile technology to actually enhance that type of visit. First, a quick shopping list is made. Connect that upon arrival to the store to a store map on the mobile device, with the items on the list clearly identified on the map. Then select several companion purchases to offer with the list. Give a reward for using the list feature and she's out of the store with an even faster enhanced experience.

When we think in terms of enhancing the experience, understanding behavior, and creating opportunities for sales, it might work out differently. I believe that overall, consumers want technology to improve their experience and make them more productive. In turn, they will reward the retailer that does that with a return visit.

All too often, the instinct is towards gimmickry, coupons, offers the consumer isn't interested in, etc. Think differently. Don't over think.


There was a great webinar yesterday given by Doug Stephens for Junction Solutions addressing the future of retail. His main point was that technology is not the issue. The primary issue is the consumer behavior change created by the technology and, in this vein, argued that entering a store is the beginning of the shopping experience and not the end (or purchase point) of the shopping experience for today's consumers.

What is the role of retail given the new shopping behavior engaged in by people who use today's and tomorrow's technology? This is an interesting question for each retailer to address.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

The simple answer is that it's still early days and a lot of the truly game changing mobile technologies like NFC payments and Augmented Reality have not reached wide adoption yet. Also, early executions of some of the more widespread techniques, like QR campaigns, are often poorly thought out. A friend here in Seattle runs a "Mobile Fail Blog" and is never lacking for story ideas.

As the technology continues to mature, adoption spreads, and execution improves, it is very easy to envision the use scenarios that would truly enhance the shopping experience for end consumers. If I'm running a retailer, I'd much rather be one of the early chains to deliver on the promise.

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Martin Mehalchin, Partner, Lenati, LLC

I'm somewhere between 6.6 and 67% in agreement with Stephen (I'm hoping the MCD article had a typo and omitted a decimal); no, make that 99% in agreement. What, exactly, is supposed to happen? Is Tony (or some other grocer) going to write on RW next year "everyone has a smartphone now so I've stopped carrying frozen foods"? Or maybe, "we don't accept paper coupons anymore, it's all done electronically...." So? I'm not saying there won't be any affect -- I'm sure even some mundane event like the introduction of vinyl flooring presented an "opportunity." I'm just hard pressed to see what the fuss is about.


Yes, we are definitely over-thinking this! This is the latest thing being used to separate retailers from their hard earned profits. If you have a smartphone, you quickly learn to turn off or block information or your life becomes punctuated by a series of bells and whistles. Even teenagers learn to turn the electronic spam off.

Retailers need to concentrate on the things that really matter, like short checkout lines, keeping product in stock, keeping the store clean, keeping nice produce, meat and fish sections, offering great pricing and being involved with the community. I have yet to see an abundance of retailers accomplishing the basics. Stay away from the costs and energy necessary to cater to mobile technology.

Ed Dennis, president, Dennis Enterprises

As a grocer myself, I can tell you for those who just want to get in and get out of the supermarket, that's fine. HOWEVER, it is the extras consumers buy inside the store, that they hadn't planned to do, which keeps my store open. Grocery shopping is not so simple, and if it was, than Walmart would own the world. Consumers want and crave a unique and delicious food or side dish to feed their family and friends. This is what keeps all of us going, by creating the smells and tastes of great food, which makes the customer want to come back time and time again. A mobile app can not and never will replace that, and when the cyborgs from the terminator invade the earth, I'll be waiting for them to give 'em a good meal (who knows what they like).

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

I do believe mobile adoption is inevitable, however, it will be adopted by age groups and regions (Japan/South Korea vs. US, etc.) at differing rates. Cathy Hotka said it very well in her comments. However, my wife and I were in the supermarket and she saw that an item in the cooking spice section was out of stock, so she looked the spice up on Wikipedia and found a similar spice for her recipe. Cool! The retailer got the sale and my wife was able to make dinner! Yay!

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

Credit is due to Gartner here, as there is a reason they coined the term "Hype Cycle" long ago -- it applies to not only technology adoption generally, but is very applicable to specific industry market segments, including retail. There is no question that mobile is growing and will in time fundamentally reshape the overall omni-channel shopping experience, across all segments. That reshaping will differ dramatically segment by segment.

For example, I imagine that a majority of my over the counter pharmaceutical purchases will happen in-store as for me they are usually meant to address an immediate and urgent personal or family need. I may use my own mobile device while in-store to determine the best product fit. In contrast, most of my technology purchases are likely to be web based, ending up in delivery to my home, and will be made on whatever device seems most effective at the moment be it laptop, tablet or smartphone.

As for grocery, we had a very positive experience with "order on-line, home delivery" when we lived in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) over 10 years ago when Gartner indicated this solution was climbing the "hype curve." Fast forward to today and I am baffled that no one has figured out a value proposition to drag this out of the Gartner labeled "trough of disillusionment." It would seem that mobile technology may have a role to play in working into a positive value proposition and customer offer. However, I have to admit that even if available, this channel or path-to-purchase would likely account for less than 50% of my grocery purchases as I, like many others, still like to see, touch, and smell fresh products as a way of inspiring the menu for the next days ahead.

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Verlin Youd, Managing Principal, Verizon

By and large, I believe most customers use their smartphones and social media to research larger purchases rather than small, everyday ones. That is not to say the grocery industry does not have a stake in mobile and social commerce. A good example is the Tesco/Home Sense QR code application in South Korea. If they make it convenient (save them time) for shoppers to buy their groceries (as well as saving them money wherever possible), grocers have a mobile/social opportunity.

Christopher Krywulak, President and CEO, iQmetrix

I think it's important to keep in mind that there isn't just one shopper persona using Grocery Stores, and there isn't just one type of mission for each persona. Any visit to a grocery store will find shoppers with a prepared list next to shoppers looking for inspiration for dinner, people with a weeks worth of groceries next to those just grabbing milk, coupon users and non-coupon users, etc.

So it's not a matter of if Mobile is going to be used by all for all missions. It's a matter of whether some shopper segments are going to change their behavior as a result of new capabilities offered by their mobile devices.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of studies that ask customers how they want to behave in the future. I think it's a flawed methodology. But I do put a lot of faith in the analytics about what customers really do. So I look at something like ShopKick which generated 10 million product scans in store. When you consider that they have a tiny penetration of the smartphone equipped shopper market, and a user experience with a lot of friction, that's pretty clear evidence to me that there are a significant segment of users that want to use their mobile devices to assist in their shopping trips.

Considering the huge number of downloads that Amazon PriceChecker, eBay Redlaser, and others have and given that Best Buy, Target, and JCP have all publicly addressed the threat of "Showroomification" in various ways. It's pretty clear that mobile is already impacting the shopping visit.

I'm betting that segment is only going to get bigger and more relevant as the mobile devices and the experiences we have on them keep getting better.

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Jason Goldberg, SVP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

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