As more shoppers use smartphones to find lower prices or
research products while browsing the aisles, many retailers are
beginning to arm staff with the same tools.
"You can't put the genie back in the bottle," said Michael
Murray, Sears Holdings
Corp.'s chief marketing officer for e-commerce. "Price is part
of the decision-making process, but so is making sure you're able
to serve that customer. If you've helped facilitate [a sales
decision], people will often buy there, but some will not."
Utilizing an asset that e-retailers will never have -- people in
stores -- Sears has deployed
thousands of tablets to sales staff to help provide shoppers with
information. Other retailers, including Lowe's , Gap, Nordstrom and Macy's , are investing in smartphones
and tablets, both as tools for sales associates and as displays
where customers can access information.
"Previously you'd have expected store staff to be educated about
the products and the brand," said Geoffrey Handley, co-founder and
CEO of mobile agency The Hyperfactory. "Now, nine out of 10
consumers know much more than the store staff because they have the
tools to educate themselves."
Retailers hope to tip the scales back in their favor.
Neiman Marcus, for example, is testing NM Service, an iPhone app
designed to connect customers with their favorite sales associates.
When the shopper walks into a store, NM Service alerts the
designated associates. With access to purchase history, the
salesperson can then text the customer a message, such as "I found
the perfect scarf for the suit you bought last week."
"There's no sense in building these great experiences for the
consumers but not investing in the staff," said Mr. Handley. His
agency helped Lowe's design a Store Associates App, whose features
include estimators that help determine how much paint or carpet a
customer should buy. The retailer has distributed 42,000 iPhones
loaded with the software to its workers.
These new tools also demand a different type of employee. In a
Deloitte survey of retail executives, they listed "tech-savvy,"
"brand ambassadorship" and "specialized product knowledge" as the
most important skills for sales associates in five years. That's a
big leap from the most important skill today: "point-of -sale
Not all retailers are investing in the infrastructure needed to
make their sales forces more digitally connected. The Deloitte
survey found that more than half have no Wi-Fi-enabled stores, and
more than one-third have no plans to add Wi-Fi.
Outside of mobile tools for salespeople, many retailers are
providing customers with mobile apps to help them navigate stores,
get product details or check inventory.
Last year, 39% of brick-and-mortar retailers with top-500
e-commerce sites by revenue had mobile websites and nearly 26%
had apps, according to analysis from Acquity Group.
Walmart's app, for example, enables list-making, budgeting and
completing transactions. One benefit of such customer-facing apps
is relieving associates and thus running locations more
productively, Mr. Thomas said.
But there's a threat from the apps provided by online
competitors. And it's not alone -- similar percentages of
online-only retailers and brick-and-mortar retailers had mobile
websites and apps last year, according to the Acquity study. This
past holiday season, Amazon gave customers up to $5 if they
used its Price Check app to scan items in stores.
In December, 12% of the nearly 100 million smartphone owners
compared prices while in retail stores, according to ComScore. That
number rose to 21% when all locations were considered.
"Those four walls used to be a sanctuary," said Mr. Handley.
"Now customers are in the store but not under retailer control
Stores are betting that having their own consumer-facing apps
and mobile programs will help them regain control. Best Buy, for
instance, has added QR codes to store items for customers looking
for more product information.
"They're going to keep you in their walled garden," said Devora
Rogers, director-global business development at Shopper Sciences,
and Interpublic Group of Cos. agency. "Once you've engaged with the
QR codes, it's going to keep you in the Best Buy system. It's an
effective way of combating price-comparison behavior. It enables
[shoppers] while keeping the focus on their product."