Consumers Prefer Smartphones to Associates

Discussion
Dec 08, 2010
George Anderson

By George Anderson

Two words for those working as store associates in retail:
bank tellers. A new survey by Accenture on how consumers use mobile devices
to shop shows that a large majority prefer to get information they need on
products and pricing from their smartphone rather than talk to a store employee.

According
to the research, 73 percent favor their smartphone to handle "simple
tasks" in stores rather than speaking with an employee. Seventy-one percent,
for example, would prefer to use their smartphone to find out if an item is
in stock versus 17 who would take the talking with another human approach.

"Smartphones
will permanently change the relationship between the store and the shopper,"
said Janet Hoffman, managing director of Accenture’s Retail practice, in a
press release. "Today’s tech-savvy consumer wants a seamless shopping experience
across store, mobile or online at a time that suits them. Ultimately, this
trend will lead to a new definition of the store; purpose, place and size are
all up for debate. Already we are seeing some shoppers treating stores more
like a showroom to test products and then making their purchase online."

Expanded
use of smartphones brings a number of challenges for retailers.

"Companies need
to use all of their customer information to better understand how and when
their customers want to engage with them, ask them questions or just check
some basic product details," said Ms. Hoffman. "Only
then can they deliver a personalized and enjoyable experience, while lessening
the risk of alienating customers through unwanted approaches."

Discussion Questions: In what ways do you think smartphones will most affect
how consumers shop? Conversely, how will retailers need to change their approaches
to meet changes in shopping behavior?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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16 Comments on "Consumers Prefer Smartphones to Associates"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

As with so many other discussions of customer service, this issue hinges on the type of store and the target market’s expected behavior. It’s much easier to envision the usefulness of mobile apps in a self-service store than in an upscale specialty store with an expectation of “high-touch” service. The definition of “customer service” depends on the consumer’s expectation, too: If in-stock performance and efficient checkout are the key criteria, the retailer had better enlist new technology (like smartphones) to make them happen.

All this being said, I’m always a bit skeptical about survey data that present changes in consumer preferences in such stark terms.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
10 years 5 months ago

The age old problem in retail has been getting customers the information they need, when they need it and in a manner that pleases them. This has always been tough given the restraints of manpower, training and employee behavior.

It’s no surprise therefore that consumers would prefer gathering information from their smartphone over staff. It’s timely, efficient and generally pleasant.

The message to retailers once again is that there is no middle ground. You either largely digitize your customer experience or you staff it up with people who blow your customers away (in a good way). But simply putting bodies on the floor to deliver mediocre customer experiences is no longer a tenable strategy.

Peter Fader
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Whoa–slow down! Yes, it’s true that many shoppers will use smartphones for many in-store activities, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will use them for everything. There will still be a vital role for good salespeople , and thanks to technology their roles will change to let them play to their strength: specifically, they can be very helpful as creative, empathetic “trusted advisors,” rather than serving as mere order takers and information providers.

For many retailers it will be great to outsource the latter functions to smartphones–it will lower their costs and make the shopping experience more pleasant and efficient for many customers.

So bring on the smartphones–they might well be a salesperson’s best friend!

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Retailers need to consider ways to add value via the interaction between the customer and the sales associate. If the interaction is limited to product availability, pricing, and other simple information tasks, the smartphone wins. However, if the simple information question can be used as an opportunity to “solve the customer’s problem,” make product recommendations or “up-sell” the customer, the role of the sales associates is positively transformed. Similarly, smartphone apps need to consider continuing dialog options beyond product availability and pricing information to become the electronic sales associate.

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 5 months ago
Studies like this really need to be taken with a grain of salt. First red flag, I didn’t see a disclosure of the study’s methodology and population that was sampled. “73 percent favor their smartphone to handle simple tasks in stores rather than speaking with an employee.” Who would that be? The entire smart-phone carrying population? Sorry but I do not believe that for a second. All age groups carry cell-phones now and the majority of people would still rather talk to a human being (“hey do you have this sweater in green?”) than spend minutes looking up a mobile web page. The user population sampled was most likely young 18-24 users. Also, which retail environment are we talking about? A grocery store or an electronics store? People use cell phones differently for different purchases in different environments. Generalizations and averages are misleading. As my Grade 11 Math teacher used to say “Put your head in the freezer and your feet in the oven, on average you’re okay.” It’s hard not be to cynical. The… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Color me skeptical of this survey featured in Internet Retailer. If retailers are teaching customers to feel more comfortable with computers than technology, why have stores anymore!?

I’d put any of my clients’ salespeople against this so-called shopping preference any day.

Joan Treistman
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

1. I’ll assume the research was conducted among those who have and use smart phones. Good idea, but in predicting immediate and future use we’ll have to know more about those who currently don’t have or use smart phones. How many of them are out there? What’s holding them back? How does consumer behavior change once a person owns a smart phone?
2. I agree with those who believe there is a difference for potential use by type of store, i.e. electronics vs. apparel.
3. Is the real lesson to prepare for the onslaught of smart phones? Or is the insight to prepare for new consumer behaviors, wants and needs? Be vigilant, anticipate and look for the opportunity to provide appropriate and desired experiences.

Doug Fleener
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

I think the key here is the qualifier “simple tasks.” I’m not surprised by this survey because in so many stores you can’t even get someone to do these “simple tasks.” Technology easily replaces clerks who add little or no value.

This is why smart retailers are investing in their staff so they’re going far beyond the simple tasks of providing information, and instead offering expertise and a more engaging experience.

We have clients who are using this same technology with iPads in every store to enable their staff to deliver an even better experience.

sandi smith
Guest
sandi smith
10 years 5 months ago

I am not surprised really. I work in the retail world selling fine wine and other alcoholic beverages. I have often met with customers who have read about wines, etc. in magazines and online. They have successfully done their own research and know what they want. So in the world of great customer service, my job is to find the wines and build a rapport that keeps them coming back! Sometimes it’s a blessing … if allowed to go the extra mile.

John Karolefski
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Man or machine? Great customer service by knowledgeable store associates will always be preferred by shoppers. It’s the human touch. But how many retailers have invested in that level of customer service? How many people use smart phones for shopping? Combine them and you have the best possible customer experience.

Jonathan Marek
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Another skeptic here, regarding the survey. Customers want correct, unbiased, and immediate information. If they believe associates can’t or won’t give them that information, of course they’ll turn to their device. If anything, this survey shows the problem of delivering effective retail service.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
10 years 5 months ago
Now before we go too far, lets remember that less than 10% of the public actually has a “Smart” phone. So you dingbats would encourage all retailers to stop hiring employees and shift all product information for your store to a format that can be broadcast to smart phones. Do you work for the government? The fact is ANY consumer would rather deal with a well trained competent store employee for assistance than a smart phone. The problem is that retail executives don’t have the smarts to actually invest anything in their employees. Now you want proof, well look at any Radio Shack. Here is a retailer who has stayed in business through expertise. Radio Shack is often the highest priced retailer in the marketplace but because consumers have learned that they can actually get their problems with electronics solved by talking to an employee at Radio Shack they will pay the money to go there.I fear this article was written by someone trying to sell retail management a “new” SILVER BULLET. You know, the… Read more »
Herb Sorensen
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

I join others here with the cautions about how far and how fast this Convergence of Online, Mobile and Bricks-and-mortar (COMB) will go and when, but it does seem inevitable. However, in my practice I act as if it will NEVER happen. This is because this is a $14 trillion global industry (retailing,) that is quite conservative, and we need solutions that are good for a million stores, right now.

The fact that anyone presuming to advise this industry thinks that the big role of smart phones will be to provide information to shoppers–or pay them to buy something, AKA coupon or discount–confirms the title of Neale Martin’s book: “Habit: The 95% of Behavior that MARKETERS IGNORE.”

Shopping is mostly NOT a cognitive process, but an instinctive and emotional process. If Spock is your target market, you richly deserve the mediocrity of your sales.

Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
10 years 5 months ago

Many thoughtful comments on this topic–some simple tasks are easier with smart phones. Providing good information, tech specification, nutritional information–accessory suggestions for clothing, entertainment ideas, shopping lists for recipes–all are appreciated by some consumers with smart phones.

Many CPG companies are using, evaluating, or considering QR codes or similar on the package for many of the simple tasks and use suggestions. Let associates help with the higher touch areas and really help shoppers with questions, options, and a more “personal” experience in the aisle–then close the sale.

Lee Peterson
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

I feel like we’ve talked about this before, but IMHO, customers prefer electronic devices to store associates because the associates are poorly trained and generally underwhelming. However, I’d like to see this study done in stores where that was not the case, like Whole Foods or Apple or Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (“the answer’s yes, what’s the question?”) and see what their take is then.

Point: it is vastly better to talk to a well trained, friendly, helpful associate than a machine. But getting to that type of associate experience is the challenge, albeit preferred.

Frank Beurskens
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

According to our internal data of supermarket web sites, the average retailer is attracting 4.98% of their customer base to their web site on a weekly basis. 1.91% are coming to the site via a mobile device. We are a long, long ways off before we see 70% mobile usage rates in the food sector….

In the meantime, retailers must provide solutions across all interactive digital channels, including in-store interactive displays, since in-store is where all the shoppers ultimately go, and where most of the planning and purchase decisions are taking place.

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