Why Are Mobile Shoppers Avoiding Store Associates?

May 28, 2013

According to a new Google-sponsored study, one in three smartphone shoppers would rather find information using their smartphone than ask a store employee. In categories like electronics and appliances, the percentage is much higher.

The study, Mobile In-Store Research: How in-store shoppers are using mobile devices, surveyed 1,507 smartphone owners who use mobile devices while shopping.

When shopping the appliance category, the survey found that 55 percent of these shoppers use their smartphones to find information. In electronics, the "self-help" rate is 48 percent; baby care, 40 percent; and household care, 39 percent.

Asked what these shoppers were using their smartphones in the store for, the top-two leading response across categories were "Make Price Comparisons," cited by 53 percent, and "Finding Promotional Offers," 39 percent. The remaining two top answers were "Find Locations/Directions," 36 percent, and "Find Hours," 35 percent.

In the electronics and appliance categories, mobile phones are being used for purposes other than saving money. When shopping for electronics, for instance, 51 percent are using smartphones in stores to "Browse," 45 percent to "Find Product Reviews," 42 percent to "Find Product Information," 35 percent to "Find Where Specific Products Are Sold," and 32 percent "To Find Product Availability In-Store." Still, in both categories, "Making Price Comparisons" was the most-mentioned use of smartphones in store.

Overall, the study concluded that despite the price-consciousness, shoppers who use mobile more actually spend more in store. Comparing the in-store purchases of standard smartphone shoppers (use mobile in-store at least once a month) versus frequent (use mobile in-store at least once a week), the basket sizes of frequent mobile shoppers were 25 percent to 50 percent higher.

Overall, Google found 79 percent of smartphone owners are using their phones to help with shopping in physical stores, and they’re being used across categories.

In a blog entry, Adam Grunewald, product marketing manager, mobile ads, noted that some stores are reaching this mobile-enabled shopper by promoting their expanded inventory online or implementing a price match guarantee to retain "savings-hungry shoppers." QR codes linked to information about products, or apps with store maps and real-time inventory are also being used. Wrote Mr. Grunewald, "Whatever tactics marketers choose, it’s clear that smartphones are changing the in-store experience, and that winning the key decision moments at the physical shelves means owning the digital shelves too."

To what degree will smartphones replace store associates as an information source? Is the shift likely to be focused on just a few or many categories? How should affected stores respond?

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34 Comments on "Why Are Mobile Shoppers Avoiding Store Associates?"

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Bob Phibbs

There are a lot of lonely people out there who eschew contact with others to begin with.

The two leading response indicators, to comparison shop and find offers, seem to be apples and oranges that they prefer to not talk to an employee. If that is all they wanted to find out, they could have done all of that at home—why come to a store?

There is a coming divide in retail. Either you will believe all shoppers want to do is look into the palm of their hand and shop, or you believe your shoppers want to look and explore your store and train your employees the soft skills necessary to capitalize on your design and brand. You won’t be able to do both.

How you see this survey might be a clue to which camp you are choosing.

Max Goldberg

Store associates are being challenged by the base of knowledge on the internet. The more information a consumer needs before making a purchase, the more the consumer will rely on the internet as an information source.

Retailers can respond by offering QR codes that link directly to sources of information.

As consumers use smart phones to compare prices, retailers can offer to match any legitimate in-stock price, which seems like a slippery slope, or they can offer bundles of products with high perceived value, which, if well priced, could increase register rings and profits.

Smartphones are here to stay. Retailers needs to adjust accordingly. The need for knowledgeable, helpful sales associates has not gone away. Their role has been supplemented by these devices.

Tom Redd

Smart retailers will never replace a store associate with a phone. What the smart retailers are already doing is putting smarter tablets and phones in the hands of their associates. These devices provide more info on the store inventory, product specs, and samples of usage, and even customer reviews.

With shopper tech, the key is for the associate to be one step ahead of the shopper by using the same tools with more information that a shopper does not have access to.

In addition, the human interface is still the best way to sell to the shopper. The key is to train them to be the best.

Adrian Weidmann

Shoppers want to make educated and informed purchase decisions. After years of marginal customer service by store associates, shoppers simply don’t trust or perceive store associates as a trusted, reliable source of any valued information and insights. This perception is far reaching and the use of technology to gain these insights and information will continue to grow as more and more shoppers become comfortable with the technology and its use.

There is no doubt that brands and retailers need to design and activate relevant and valued in-store digital shopper marketing initiatives. In-store and digital must become an integrated shopping journey and process.

Ken Lonyai

Retailers have been pushing customers towards mobile self help even before the capability existed. What I mean is: store associates (in general) have been continually less informed/interested/capable of supporting customers as each year passes. Retailers, focused on the bottom line have accepted a lower level of service/support as the doorway to maintaining margins. Rather than consumers revolting (shopping elsewhere) they are saving retailer’s hide by helping themselves. Ultimately, it’s a double-edged sword that will affect all product categories.

While it seems like a solution to the retail labor problem, I see it as a liability to retailers that get lazy about their customers. Ultimately it can commoditize stores, turning them essentially into warehouse clubs where price and inventory are key purchase indicators, rather than shopping experience and loyalty. That’s dangerous for any retailer that can’t compete on price and manage inventory.

Zel Bianco

The inefficiencies of store associates have been long berated. With the advance of smartphones, consumers have a way to circumvent experiences with employee inadequacies.

To be fair, in large retail stores, employees can’t be expected to know everything in the store. But it is frustrating to constantly receive answers of “I don’t know.” For questions involving detailed responses, I frequently rely on information derived from online, through customer reviews, product information, and comparison shopping.

With all this data at our fingertips, employees cannot possibly be as knowledgeable as the internet. A good way for stores to respond would be to equip their employees with smartphones, or at least a way to review the information in-store, so that they can have a fighting chance at being effective. A little knowledge of the store layout wouldn’t hurt either.

Jason Goldberg

There is increasing evidence that shoppers trust recommendations from their social circle more than retailers or manufacturers. Mobile is the best method to find social proof in a retail store at the moment, so it’s not surprising that some shoppers would rather read ratings and reviews, or chat with a friend about a potential purchase rather that talk to a sales associate.

A lot depends on how the sales associate is perceived by the shopper. Do they feel like a friendly member of the shoppers social circle that could give useful advice, or are they a mouthpiece for the retailer or manufacturer?

I find that in high information categories like electronics, very few consumers are truly self-service or completely sales assisted. Most shoppers want to be self-service while they orient themselves and get educated about a potential purchase, but then they do want to engage a sales associate to get validation of their purchase decision before they commit to it. The Google survey did not give respondents the option to answer both.

Brian Numainville

While good retailers will never believe they can replace store associates with electronic devices, consumers may make that choice for them. If store associates are not well-trained, customer-focused, and knowledgeable, why wouldn’t someone prefer to use their smartphone and avoid the hassle!

Steve Montgomery

Are they browsing or buying? Ahh, that is the question. If they are browsing, then the customers may feel they prefer to do it alone in the company of their smartphone.

I agree with Bob. The store employees must have the personal and sales skills if they want to convert the browser to a buyer. The same skills, but perhaps to a lesser degree, have to be employed if they are buyers and trying to decide where to buy.

Paul R. Schottmiller
Paul R. Schottmiller
4 years 4 months ago

If your in-store customer service model involves wages on the lower end, lots of part time, and high turnover, it is already challenging to have knowledgeable associates on the floor providing consistent, quality customer service.

In the absence of that, customers are/will increasingly use their own means.

This train has already left the station, but some retailers just haven’t realized it yet.

Liz Crawford

This doesn’t surprise me. A few years ago there was a study of younger shoppers looking to buy cars. A majority preferred getting information from their cellphones over the sales associate. Is there any wonder? Heck, even I prefer it.

Why? Interacting with a sales associate is demanding: socially, emotionally, intellectually. The sales person demands an immediate and complicated social response from the shopper. The shopper needs to be nice, while trying to get “real” information, all without being strong-armed or out-witted into decision-making. It’s a mental and social jujutsu that can ruin a fun shopping experience.

Further, sales associates often don’t know much. They are predators looking for commission, and the shoppers are prey. An app may try to “sell” you something (and may even do so more effectively) but it is far less likely to generate the uneasy feelings in one’s gut, that you are being taken for a ride.

Ed Rosenbaum

Smartphones will continue to get “smarter” over the generations. Retailers will continue to use the smartphone technology to draw and serve their customers better. But smartphones are not going to replace the interaction and face-to-face contact we need.

I work from home. There are some days when I have no verbal interaction because of technology. I need to prevent getting stale in my work, so I will go out to a place where I can get to communicate “live” with others.

Joan Treistman

From the article: “The study surveyed 1,507 smartphone owners who use mobile devices while shopping. One in three smartphone shoppers would rather find information using their smartphone than ask a store employee.”


Respondents by self-definition use their smartphone in store, thus less likely to depend on store employees.

“Asked what these shoppers were using their smartphones in the store for, the top-two leading response across categories were ‘Make price comparisons,’ cited by 53 percent, and ‘Finding promotional offers,’ 39 percent. The remaining two top answers were ‘Find locations/directions,’ 36 percent, and ‘Find hours,’ 35 percent.”


What is surprising to me is the proportion that doesn’t seem to use their smartphone for information leading to sale, i.e., 47% don’t make price comparisons, and 61% don’t look for promotional offers. It would appear that the 36% who are looking for locations/directions and the 35% looking for hours are ready to jump to the next retailer.


Here lies the opportunity for retailers and marketers. Influence what appears to be almost half of in-store smartphone users to look for or come upon information and promotional offers that trigger sales in the store where they are using their smartphone.

Paula Rosenblum

Do we really not get the issue here? It’s that the phone is better informed than the store associate. It’s only a problem if you really want to keep your stores. If you want to keep those brick and mortar stores, it might be better to ask a different question: “How can we attract, train and retain qualified employees?”

Business is no longer “as usual” so we have some serious decisions to make as an industry.

Anne Howe

Two very effective things that store associates can be good at (if trained) is the use of influence principles to spur willingness to buy, and to be better and faster at using technology they have in their hands to help shoppers get to the specific information they are seeking.

A scenario that demonstrates this could look like this:

Susie walks into the store, looks at a few tablets, then begins to focus on her smartphone to get info. The associate approaches, suggesting that if she share her info needs with him, he can help her get answers and info twice as fast.

Then while he’s truly helping, he puts one choice for her tablet purchase in her hands and tells her to imagine herself owning it, using it daily. He merely says: let’s get you one that performs well and feels right for you.

Susie will be more influenced to like and buy what she imagines herself using successfully. The associate will be more valuable as he finds her answers faster than she can do it herself.

Win. Win.

Doug Garnett

I don’t think this is new behavior. It’s just old behavior given a new excuse so Google can claim that it causes the behavior. We need to always take care in these claims of causality.

That said, stores just need to stay very focused on the value they need their associates to deliver to maintain their businesses. In many stores, associate contact with shoppers can offer little more than locating product, handling price discrepancies, and handling consumer complaints.

That also suggests encouraging smartphone use while shopping—because it offers opportunities for consumers to get info while in-store that leads them to make more and faster purchases at higher margins.

Lee Kent

Smartphones will indeed replace the need to have hired sticks in stores who don’t know, don’t care, don’t really want to be there!

Smart retailers will take the additional survey and find out how their customers want to interact with their brands and will place SAs, armed with the right tools, where they are needed.

I see a new mix of SAs. Product specialists who are go-to people for products, brand advocates who introduce the consumer to the brand experience, and convenience associates who make shopping the brand easy and convenient.

Liz Abdill
Liz Abdill
4 years 4 months ago

As long as the product knowledge of the store associate remains poor to nonexistent, the use of smartphones while shopping will continue to increase. I prefer to take average of the reviews of a product from strangers rather than to be frustrated by the inability of the store associate to intelligently answer my questions.

Mel Kleiman

Most store employees need to be replaced by technology based not on who they are, but what the stores expect from them for what they are paid and how they are trained.

Smart retailers are going to recognize that better trained and paid employees are a great investment and will help to grow the business.

W. Frank Dell II

I see two other reasons for using smartphones. First is lack of associate knowledge. Too often, store associates only know what they have read from the manufacturer in sales material and have limited knowledge on competitive products. Second is store associate bias. Incentives have store associates push specific brands and/or models. This can also be caused by the associate’s personal preference for an item.

This shift will continue as more consumers have smartphones and as those that have them learn how to use them. The store response is to provide information not available elsewhere.

Robert DiPietro

Smartphones won’t replace knowledgeable store associates, but customers want to ensure that a) they are not getting ripped off, and b) the product they are buying is the right one.

Stores should embrace the educated shopper and provide knowledgeable associates as that is the winning formula. Customers in the store are already in a ‘buying mode’, now it’s just making sure everything checks out.

Herb Sorensen
The advent of smart phone shopping will usher in the Third Wave of Retailing. 100 years ago, the industry abandoned mediated sales, and moved to a mini-warehousing model of “selling.” In reality, the retailer didn’t SELL anything, they made it available for the shopper to SELL themselves, aka SELF-service retailing. This means that sales were unmediated by retailers, who became largely ignorant even of the concept of mediated sales, other than the occasional assistance from some member of the staff. However, with the advent of smart phone assistance, mediation of sales again becomes a possibility. Unfortunately, the above mentioned ignorance of the process will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars flushed down the tube, in consequence of programs constructed by non-salesmen, largely in stark ignorance of how shopping actually occurs. NO, you do NOT understand how you yourself shop! However, someone will create a super-selling app, that MEDIATES sales to the shopper, thinking their thoughts before them and guiding them directly to purchases that ring their bells. Amazon does this online, and it will become common for mobile smart phones, WHEN the smart phone becomes a virtually obligatory component of the shopping trip. And THAT, my friends, will be… Read more »
James Tenser

Let’s be careful not to interpret smartphone shopper behaviors as an excuse for investing even less on customer service staff and sales training. For one, we can teach our front-line people to recognize that shoppers peering at smartphones are highly engaged in a decision process, and that may signal a service opportunity.

I’m generally wary about self-reported behavior surveys like this one from Google. In this study, all 1,507 respondents were folks who had used their smartphones for shopping.

I’d be cautious about interpreting the results to mean that in-store smartphone behaviors cause higher sales. Perhaps folks who use smartphones arrive already determined to complete a purchase.

Craig Sundstrom

Or another way of looking at it is “two in three smartphone shoppers would rather ask a store employee than find information using their smartphone.”

Without knowing what kind of info is being sought—is it something perfunctory like “what aisle is the bread on?” Or something complex like, “what should I get my spouse?”—I’m not sure whether to yawn or sigh. But of course all of this is almost theoretical anyway. Many stores have eliminated most associates…whether we like it or not.

Todd Sherman
Todd Sherman
4 years 4 months ago

There are a number of different and valid answers to the question as there are multiple scenarios. It depends on such things as the availability of the associate, how good they are at their jobs, and the retail category.

For example, a consumer electronics shopper can almost always get more information online than from a store clerk, including reviews and competitive pricing.

Finding the location of a product in a grocery or hardware store can be easily codified and presented in an app. (Just this weekend I spent a chunk of time looking for a store associate to help me find a product, gave up, and then took me less time to actually find it.)

For apparel, an associate can provide additional, personalized insights that can be very helpful.

Part of this equation is whether the associate is viewed as a necessary expense to be minimized or as an asset that can help enhance the in-store experience. Different retailers have different philosophies…and the results are predictable.

While shoppers will have different uses for smartphones in different categories, it is becoming a key part of the in-store retail experience.

Shep Hyken

The trend for this type of e-smartphone seems to be information gathering with the mobile device (smartphone). Once the customer has the information and is ready to buy, then they will engage the salesperson.

This puts a different spin on the type of salesperson working the floor. They must have the product knowledge for those that don’t gather information via the smartphone, and they must be able to communicate the value of doing business with the organization. That second part is becoming more and more important, especially as savvy consumers showroom the retailer.

Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
4 years 4 months ago

Well, for one thing the smartphone isn’t trying to sell you anything and isn’t getting paid a commission if it provides information and you buy something. Clerks never tell anyone “hon, you look horrible in that,” or “buy these shoes, they will make you feet look even bigger.” This won’t be a problem for Tiffany, but will eventually affect most commodity purchases.

As practically every store will be affected, I would expect many retailers to reduce staff and even institute things like self-checkout. Retailers like Target and Walmart should see no appreciable effect as they dumbed down years ago.

Vahe Katros

Smartphones will handle the basic questions that lead up to the sale and this will free store associates to add value in other ways (supported by new apps coming out of incubators everywhere).

Mobile will morph around every B2C category and Google wants a part of cloud services for mobile commerce. They have all the pieces to support customer experience applications development. This reminds me of how Microsoft tried to win over retailers in the ’90s….

Janet Dorenkott
Janet Dorenkott
4 years 4 months ago

Pricing and promotion aside, I think smartphone users are using their phones to get information over talking to an associate (especially when related to electronics), because many smart phone users are more tech savvy than the associates at the retail store. Nothing is more frustrating than going to someone for advice and then feeling obligated to work with them when you know you could get the information faster on your own.

Al McClain
Al McClain
4 years 4 months ago

Lots of store-level associate bashing today. And, this from an industry that repeats over and over at industry conferences how valuable these associates are. I guess the proof is that the CEOs of many large retailers make tens of millions per year, while many store associates struggle to make a living wage. So, you probably get what you pay for and many CEOs inclinations are to cut staff, automate anything that can possibly be automated and drive more $ to the company’s (and his) bottom line, at least in the short term. But, there is still a decent market for full service retailing in apparel, jewelry, cosmetics, shoes, and other “high touch” areas of retail. Those retailers need to look themselves in the mirror and see if they are training and paying associates enough to have the high caliber of associates they laud.

Vahe Katros

Software produces a deflationary effect on business. The reason the market stays high while unemployment is high is software is replacing headcount and improving the financials of businesses. Google’s platform play is another attempt to chip away at the niche sources of friction that encompass commerce.

As for the gap between highest and lowest paid, I am reminded of Costco and how they have built an equitable model.

Jerry Gelsomino

Bad training or trainees who don’t pay attention, either way this puts some front-line store associates on the sales floor without correct or current information about the products they are selling. Of course smartphones are a more trusted source of information.

Bill Hanifin

Smartphones will not directly replace store associates, but will have an even wider ranging impact on store dimensions, inventory selection, pricing, and staffing.

The Google survey is directional in nature and to that extent gives accurate readings of how consumers are increasingly depending on mobile devices to navigate brick and mortar retail. At the same time, there is a more detailed level of segmentation required to understand why certain groups of consumers use their phones in store.

The dynamics behind smartphone use in stores includes the type of retailer (product sold), price point, and customer segment.

Look for more detailed studies of mobile assisted shopping to come forward from the Global Brand Institute of Columbia School of Business this summer.

Alexander Rink
4 years 4 months ago
I do not think it is realistic that smartphones will replace store associates completely anytime soon. Have ATMs completely replaced bank tellers? Have automated check-out lines at the supermarket completely replaced cashiers? Have automated check-in kiosks at airports completely replaced agents? The use of smartphones and mobile devices in stores is still in its infancy, and there is a very significant amount of learning and acclimatization that will need to occur before we see a significant impact on the use of store employees. Now, that is not to say that smartphones would not work better in certain categories than others, such as for simple, commodity products where the shoppers know exactly what they are getting and there is not much risk in an incorrect choice (for example, think AA batteries rather than an LED TV or clothing). Incidentally, I would also disagree with the statement that a shopper will fall into neat categorizations of being either a “smartphone-only person” or a “store associate-only” person. Store associates are still the most expedient way to get certain kinds of information (think warranty coverage, stock availability, etc.), not to mention that it is often simply faster to ask a store associate about whether… Read more »

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