Is mobile the most disruptive force in retail since online selling began?

Photo: RetailWire
Sep 14, 2018
George Anderson

Research study after research study has shown that mobile traffic to retail sites has continued to increase as a percentage of overall visits. But, in the end, consumers have primarily used desktop machines to complete their purchases. Will the 2018 Christmas selling season change all that? At least one tech vendor says the answer is yes.

Salesforce has published a list of predictions ahead of the holidays including the assertion that mobile (smartphones and tablets) will, for the first time ever, be the primary devices used to order goods online. In the end, the customer relationship management firm expects 44 percent of all orders during the season to be placed using phones. Tablets are predicted to account for nine percent, pushing the total for mobile devices to 53 percent. As a point of comparison, mobile devices were used to place 39 percent of holiday orders in 2017, according to the tech vendor. Separate research conducted by Adobe pegged mobile as being behind 33.1 percent of the season’s sales.

“Mobile is undoubtedly the most disruptive force in retail since the onset of ecommerce,” said Rick Kenney, head of consumer insights, Salesforce, in a statement. “This is the year shoppers turn to phones, buying more on phones than any other device, and making far more visits, too. We’ll see more visits from phones this season than total ecommerce visits across the entire 2015 shopping season. And even those in-store shoppers are mobile — 83 percent of shoppers aged 18–44 are using their phones while in a physical store.”

Sixty-eight percent of all traffic to ecommerce sites during the holiday season is expected to come from mobile, up 19 percent over last year.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Has mobile technology become “the most disruptive force in retail since the onset of ecommerce?” Where has mobile tech had the greatest impact on retail up to this point, and how do you see it influencing the business in the years to come?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Mobile is obviously a major part of retail, as it’s a major part of most of our lives."
"In short — yes. Mobile technology completely revolutionized how the average consumer interacts with brands on a day-to-day level."
"What's new is the growing investment in mobile relevance as retailers increasingly recognize that the customer experience is growing in importance relative to price promotion."

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25 Comments on "Is mobile the most disruptive force in retail since online selling began?"

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Mark Ryski

Undeniably mobile has become a force in retailing – and maybe even the most disruptive force since e-commerce. The greatest impact on retail has been in providing shoppers the ability to have access to information while physically shopping. This combination of in-the-moment, real-time online access with a physical visit is very powerful, especially when geo-fencing and mobile ad targeting are applied. Any retailer who is slow to develop a robust mobile strategy will be left behind.

Ralph Jacobson

I don’t think there are any surprises in this area. Mobile will continue to dominate as the channel leveraged most often for e-commerce — or commerce of ANY kind for that matter. Globally, this is already happening as emerging regions are literally skipping the PC stage and going directly to mobile as the citizens get online.

Art Suriano
I think the bigger issue is the technical data. When I read 83 percent of shoppers are using phones “when” shopping, the truth is they are not using their phone “FOR” shopping, and that’s the problem. Just do your own observations as I do often when shopping. Customers are holding their phones, they’re emailing, texting friends and talking but most of them are not using their phones while in the store for shopping. Tech companies are smart and know how to twist data to their advantage. Yes, more people are shopping online, and more will use mobile devices because the devices are getting better. Soon, we’ll see phones replace laptops entirely because they’ll have more than enough power and memory while the user will be able through a Bluetooth connection to use larger monitors. However, it doesn’t mean the world of shopping is going to change all that much. The real truth is the economy is booming with consumer confidence at an 18-year high, and as tech companies are touting all their tech data about… Read more »
Nikki Baird

I think you have to scope that down from the general “mobile technology” to smartphones in particular. Mobile’s been around for a long time. But it didn’t hit retailers’ radar really until Amazon launched their price check app in 2010. From my corner of the world, retailers’ response to that was pretty much panic in the streets — mobile was a skunkworks team inside the e-commerce team up until that point, but became a real effort after Amazon quickly racked up $1 billion in sales through mobile.

And we’re really still not at the inflection point for the impact mobile will have on retail. When 5G comes, it will be a game-changer — for consumers’ use of mobile, but also for retailers’ use of it. We’ve seen a lot of behavior changes from consumers already, but it will be nothing compared to when mobile browsing is as fast and effortless — and in some cases faster and even more effortless — than a desktop experience.

Paula Rosenblum

Will be? Has been is more like it. Whether or not they buy directly from the device, mobile phones created real-time price transparency, which resulted in endless price wars and the race to the bottom.

I don’t think I care if consumers actually consummate the sale on their devices or not (I confess to doing such if I’ve forgotten to buy something when I was home) … what matters is that the product discovery and selection process happens on them. And it does.

Lee Peterson

The most disruptive force in retail since the advent of e-commerce is AI. The fact that I can tell a machine to pick me out a shirt or soap or food or whatever and that machine shows me the choices it’s programmed to show me changes the game completely. As a retailer, that has to set off all kinds of alarms about advertising, getting on the machine creator’s marketplace, unknown competition and on and on.

Mobile is a game changer, but even mobile uses AI now for just about anything you want. AI retail is a whole new world we’re just now entering.

Adrian Weidmann

The fact that shoppers have taken control of the entire shopping process is the tectonic shift that has caused the disruption. Mobile technology is one of the enabling technologies. The shopping process was dictated by merchants and retailers. A shopper would go to a physical store in hopes of finding what they were looking for, make a purchase and carry it home. Not anymore! The shopping journey is no longer a single path — rather it is an individual journey with almost limitless paths and destinations. Mobile technology has enabled immediacy and the fulfillment and expectation of instant gratification.

Dick Seesel

I agree with Mark that m-commerce has been a disruptive force as the technology has enabled retailers to reach customers in more personalized ways. But it’s disruptive for a different reason: The “empowered consumer” (based on the information and options since the advent of e-commerce) is more empowered than ever with the resources of a smartphone at his or her fingertips.

Ananda Chakravarty

Mark puts it well — but to expand the thinking, it goes even further than consumer engagement. Mobile tech has expanded delivery to the home with every UPS driver having a device, has allowed retailers in warehouses to track packages and route to destinations efficiently and has enabled digital transactions where stores couldn’t even exist before. Mobile will continue to grow as a powerful tool for retailers in the back office first and over time we’ll see even more consumer adoption follow.

Charles Dimov

I can’t say I disagree. Online has been big, but mobile will brings one commerce channel right into the store (whether the retailer is ready for it or not). So far, it has been largely price checking (as a start). But as a retailer, you want to get on top of this by showing more store inventory levels and trying to lock in the order while the consumer is checking their mobile. Ultimately I think this is going to push more retailers to start using and offering omnichannel selling.

Min-Jee Hwang

Mobile is obviously a major part of retail, as it’s a major part of most of our lives. I think mobile has done a great job of letting customers compare products and retailers while in-store. It’s so easy to find something in-store and search it on Amazon or another competitor. Shoppers can compare prices, but they can also read reviews or buy online after trying in-store. This behavior should continue into the future.

Joel Rubinson

Mobile is integral to the always-on lifestyle we live that has changed shopping in fundamental ways. The change is bigger than mobile however. Case in point — I bought a house in Florida in early January and had nothing for it. I think every major purchase I made included mobile, desktop and in-store visits! Then targeted ads helped to influence some of these purchases where the data comes from my behaviors across devices. So mobile might be the nucleus but a nucleus alone does not an atom make!

Meaghan Brophy

In short — yes. Mobile completely changes how people shop. Looking at how shoppers make their final purchase is just scratching the tip of the mobile iceberg. If the purchase is made on a desktop or even in-store, there’s a good chance mobile was involved in the shopping journey somehow — whether through email marketing, social media browsing or reading reviews. Mobile technology completely revolutionized how the average consumer interacts with brands on a day-to-day level.

Kai Clarke

Clearly, we can expect mobile to continue to be a disruptive force in retail. However, the PC is still the dominant player and we are pushing the demise of it too rapidly. Furthermore, traditional on-ground sales are still the preferred method of holiday shopping and just because we see visits to online sites from mobile locations, that does not translate into purchases. This has been the rule for many years, and it will not suddenly change overnight. Everyone already has mobile and its impact built into their retail expectations, so an argument might be made that mobile playing a disruptive role may be overplayed here. We expect mobile to be a retail force which must be accounted for in today’s retail environment. We also expect it to play a growing presence in the delivery of information and purchasing. How many purchases are actually made using a mobile phone as a percent of all purchases will be the question which needs to be answered.

Ricardo Belmar
Mobile hasn’t just changed how we shop, it’s changed almost every aspect of our daily lives. Primarily by giving us access to any information we want, from anywhere we may be at our fingertips. 4G really changed the game and, in the future, 5G will revolutionize this yet again. At some point, retailers need to stop worrying about whether a shopper completes a purchase online vs. on mobile vs. in-store and just track that they made a purchase. They are all touchpoints that matter to the consumer, but consumers don’t care about the distinction between these channels. Amazon and Apple do this well and seamlessly allow customers to move across those interfaces effortlessly and make purchases when and where they need to. Ananda raises another great point about the impact mobile has had on the back office and across the supply chain to last mile delivery. All of these areas have been impacted significantly and to great positive benefit by mobile. Again, with 5G this will only increase! I often tell people that the best… Read more »
Neil Saunders

I completely agree that there is a shift to mobile, but I am not sure that I would describe it as particularly disruptive. It’s part of the natural evolution of online/digital and the trend has been in play for a long time; a lot of the disruption has already happened.

There will be further disruption as connection speeds get better and as more technology around virtual and augmented reality come into play, but that’s a longer term trend than this holiday season.

Jennifer McDermott

Mobile is so powerful as it has the opportunity to drive retail opportunities to consumers anytime, anywhere no matter what point of purchase they are at (awareness, consideration, ready to buy). As brick-and-mortar struggles to remain relevant, building personalization through tech will be a big driver of foot traffic back into physical stores.

Doug Garnett

The fact that Salesforce is issuing consumer retail theories should concern us quite seriously. They are a B2B sales group attempting to build a place for themselves in consumer goods. As usual with the Silicon Valley ventures, their research claims align entirely with their company’s fortunes — which suggests we should be exceptionally skeptical of anything they say.

Where do they go off base? Clever idea, mixing tablets with smartphones and call them “mobile.” Oh, wait, though. Tablets are mostly used by consumers in the same way we use laptops.

So this research combines something very different (a tiny screen that’s miserable for ordering from) with, essentially, a laptop. Then it claims that’s disruptive?

My recommendation is that retailers ignore these headlines. Focus only on your business and ask the critical question: How does smartphone ordering affect your business and how much is the opportunity? Pursue that alone — because only that should be called “mobile.”

Phil Rubin
7 months 6 days ago

Mobile technology has certainly been disruptive but it is not a new thing. What is new is the growing investment in mobile relevance, and relevance in general, as retailers increasingly recognize that the customer experience is growing in importance relative to price promotion. Price promotion is only disruptive to margins and profit growth, but the experience, driven by recognition, access, information and ease (an increasing value on customers’ time), is what trumps all and is most easily and effectively enabled in mobile.

Georganne Bender

The Macy’s store closest to my home traditionally has one to two associates working on the second floor. This floor houses domestics, housewares, luggage, children’s, plus size, petites, dresses, fine china, lingerie, hosiery, stationery, Last Act, and probably a few other departments I have missed. Those associates can generally be found behind a cashwrap. If you need help with a bra fitting or choosing a china pattern, good luck.

Mr. Gennette knows his stores better than I do, and certainly e-commerce is coming on strong and needs to be properly staffed. That being said, Christmas is retail’s make-or-break time of year. Customers who choose to visit a store, who need help from a trained associate and cannot get it, will likely go somewhere else to shop. You can’t afford to mess up in the Golden Quarter.

Shep Hyken

There are two words here — disruptive and force. I believe that the mobile phone is a force, but it is not disruptive. It’s simply another channel to the retailer who has an online option. That so many people are turning to the phone over any other device makes it the channel of choice. So companies who have an online presence need to be optimized for mobile. It’s that simple.

Craig Sundstrom

It’s not immediately clear to me why this switch (from desktop to mobile in buying) is “disruptive.” Yes, mobile may be very influential in intelligence gathering — so disruptive, I guess in an indirect way — but whether people buy online from one device vs. another doesn’t strike me as important.

Kenneth Leung

Mobile is definitely disrupting retail because it is providing information to consumers in their fingertips. It isn’t about just about buying on mobile, but finding the store and the reviews, getting directions, accessing store inventory, price comparison and then transact via mobile or in person.

Larry Negrich

It’s disruptive at the speed of a glacier. Each year more shoppers feel comfortable making purchases on phones and each year retailers make the mobile experience better, so this should not shock too many.

Cate Trotter

Is anyone really surprised by this? Given how ingrained in most of our lives our smartphones are it’s pretty much to be expected that mobile is dominating in retail. In the past you would go in a store and pay whatever they were charging for the thing you wanted. If you were savvy you might go to some other stores and see how much they were charging. Customers are now using smartphones to check prices and reviews in store on the fly. They’re using them to look up what’s near them before they go shopping. They’re getting inspired by Instagram and social media. They’re talking to retailers. They’re transacting. Given the choice of using some in-store tech supplied by retailers they’d still rather use their own device for the same purpose. It’s not even having your head in the sand to not be thinking about mobile in your strategy, it’s being willfully blind.

"Mobile is obviously a major part of retail, as it’s a major part of most of our lives."
"In short — yes. Mobile technology completely revolutionized how the average consumer interacts with brands on a day-to-day level."
"What's new is the growing investment in mobile relevance as retailers increasingly recognize that the customer experience is growing in importance relative to price promotion."

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