Retailers Embrace Mobile As Pandemic Holiday Shopping Ramps Up

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As retailers prepare for the holidays and look for better ways to cater to customers’ new online and offline shopping habits, mobile technology keeps coming up as a solution to the myriad challenges this holiday season presents.

While certain pandemic shopping trends have been well documented—think contactless delivery, curbside pickup, and e-commerce sales—the importance of mobile along the path to purchase has been less appreciated. Now that retailers are beginning to ramp up for the holiday spending season, they’re increasingly embracing enhanced mobile technology as a way to serve the customers shopping inside their stores and online.

While this holiday season will be unlike any other, retailers have reason to be optimistic. Holiday sales are set to rise 1% to 1.5%, with e-commerce growing as much as 35%. Consumers are expected to spend between $1.147 trillion and $1.152 trillion between November and January. Much of that spending will happen with large retail chains that have omni-channel experiences already set up, and that has smaller retailers rushing to put their own mobile strategies in place.

According to the results of a new report by SOTI, a mobile and IoT management solutions provider, U.S. consumers are more inclined to stay in stores longer when those stores “offer a better technology experience.” Nearly half (48%) of consumers say they are excited about innovative mobile technology, like beacons and facial recognition, and 47% believe self-checkout improves the in-store shopping experience.

“With social distancing measures, smart planning, and the use of mobile technology, online and brick-and-mortar retailers can prepare for the holidays and better equip to cater to customers’ new online and offline shopping habits,” says Shash Anand, vice president of product strategy at SOTI.

Target is one of a number of retailers expected to roll out enhanced mobile capabilities this season. The company has already announced plans to add a new mobile payment option in its app, which means customers can use self-checkout without needing to touch any scanning devices.

For other brick-and-mortar stores, omnichannel capabilities like curbside pickup and BOPIS will be hugely important this season, especially as consumers continue to follow social distancing guidelines from the CDC.

Anand says retailers need to start thinking about how they will make up for lost sales with significantly fewer shoppers walking through their physical stores looking to buy gifts. One strategy may be to recreate that experience and improve the convenience factor using mobile tech.

Supply Chain Management

The differences in how retailers use mobile this holiday season won’t just be felt on the front end. Anand says mobile technology is already used to make basic retail business processes faster and more responsive. Having a streamlined supply chain will enable retailers to improve the overall customer experience.

During the first wave of Covid-19, online retailers that had already invested in supply chain tracking technology held a real advantage over more traditional brick-and-mortar stores. That technology allowed digital-first retailers to better view products in-transit and see the current status of orders in real-time so that they could expedite replacements and inform customers of changes to their orders. Anand expects to see even more retailers investing in mobile as a way to handle supply chain tracking this holiday season, allowing them to improve productivity and collaboration while also paving the way for more satisfied customers.

“With no firm end in sight, mobile technology holds the key to helping the retail industry manage consumer demands sustainably by increasing efficiency, managing workloads, and solving problems quickly,” Anand says.

Anand is not alone in his belief. A new report from the location advertising and analytics firm Blis pinpoints geography, mobility, and psychology as the three key factors, or verticals, expected to impact behavior change this holiday season. With so many consumers living outside their comfort zones right now, brands should be keeping a close eye on the “early embracers” in each of those three key verticals for the clearest insights on potential targeting opportunities.

For example, one common misconception among retailers is that consumers are staying inside and cocooning away from the world, and that could have a negative impact on holiday sales. Blis’ research team found that consumption related to “normal” life has changed, but it hasn’t gone away. Consumers who might have typically grabbed coffee on the way to work each morning haven’t stopped drinking coffee; they have just changed their locations. Some consumers might be purchasing expensive coffee makers and making coffee at home now. Others might be grabbing coffee from a different cafe.

Shifting Approaches

Forward-thinking brands should be shifting their approach to holiday marketing in light of these changes.

“The consumer you have now looks vastly different – in preference and personality – than the one you knew at the beginning of the year,” says Garin Hobbs, director of deal strategy at Iterable, a growth marketing company. “It’s no surprise that people change, but their motivations shift rapidly during a pandemic.”

According to Hobbs, the level of negativity heading into the holiday season is surprisingly high, and generally speaking, brands would do well to remind customers that there is still joy to be had in the first place. Brands should also be focusing on the timing of their messaging.

“In spite of shipping delays and other issues, consumers are twice as likely to wait for an online sales event to buy an item than they are to purchase an item as soon as it is in stock,” he says. “Incentives are high and effective drivers of increased mobile use and engagement.”

Delays in adoption of mobile technology could negatively affect brands this season. Hobbs says companies need customer data to contextualize and personalize their marketing, and they need the customer experience to be “channel-cohesive.” All of this comes from embracing and expediting the digital transformation.

Although there have been steady increases in online shopping, mobile commerce, and the growing use of BOPIS for the past few years, a report from GroundTruth found that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of these newer options. While reopening protocols mean many physical retailers are back open for business, consumers who’ve changed their shopping methods are unlikely to switch back to normal in-store behavior before the end of the year.

As consumer tastes evolve, retail experts like SOTI’s Anand say brands need to start investing in mobile and IoT technologies that infuse the shopping experience with new and exciting possibilities. If consumers want speedy service, competitive prices, personalization, and instant discounts, then retailers need to respond or they risk losing out to their competitors.

“Any retailer can operate a physical store,” Anand says. “But retailers who continually invest in digitization and going the extra mile to elevate the customer experience will reap the rewards of future-proofing their business.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.