The most popular parlor game in retail tech circles these days is plotting out mobile strategies. For some, that strategy may be little more than "not now." But the simple act of trying to craft a single, coherent mobile strategy may itself be flawed. Most retailers now need to prep three distinct strategies for dealing with the three separate ways mobile devices will be used.
The mobile retail world has now neatly morphed into three categories: consumer-used (with true M-Commerce, mobile research from home and on the road, etc.); retailer-used (for price checks, inventory inquiries, in-aisle supply chain inquiries, etc.); and consumer-in-store (2D barcodes, price comparisons, SMS communications with the chain, watching demos, mobile research from within the store, direct payment, etc.). To make matters worse, some applications sit in multiple categories, such as a retailer-used device that is temporarily given to a consumer for checking online inventory or seeing a demo.
The change from a year ago is how distinct these categories have become and how merchant strategies for one approach may not be ideal for the others. We have spoken often of the merged channel, where we refer to channels including mobile, in-store, online and call center (catalogue no longer seems relevant). But it's now becoming clear that "mobile" isn't one channel but potentially as many as three or more. In the same way that a strategy that might work well for in-store could be entirely inappropriate for a call center, one aspect of mobile may not work for another.
It's not as though the mobile environment has been especially friendly for retail. An attempt to ease into mobile payments by giving consumers adhesive stickers to place on their phones hasn't worked that well, once Discover discovered that the sticker placements prevented them from working. And the 3G network for speed didn't play well with consumers when they found out that their smartphones were often slower than even a weak desktop computer. Still, some retailers have gotten mobile creative, such as bribing customers with treats for sending retailer-friendly Tweets or for texting take-out orders instead of phoning or Web-ordering.
But the problem is still a bear for retailers. Earlier this month, I was attending a New York City dinner with a group of StorefrontBacktalk subscribers who happen to be senior retail IT execs. When the topic turned to mobile strategy, the Chief Technology Officer of a major multi-billion-dollar clothing chain sighed and pulled out three different mobile phones from various coat pockets. As long as his chain is testing them, he needs to carry all three. It's the absolute right thing to do, but what kind of industry are we in when a Fortune 500 CTO needs to carry around three phones?
The problem with the three mobile categories is that they are different enough to merit very different technology approaches. For example, until a few months ago, the smartphone choice for consumer-facing apps was clear: Apple's iPhone had a huge visual and app advantage. But Google's Nexus One is prompting quite a few chains to sit back and wait, wanting to see how marketshare and app migration plays out over the next several months.
This phone choice decision is very different across the three categories. To decide what apps to make available for consumer mobile use requires a chain to make an accurate projection of which phone most of its customers will have when they walk into the store. That needs to be a consumer popularity contest. For the mobile app that your employees will use-and certainly for the app running on the phone that they'll show consumers for inventory or demo purposes-the chain can choose whichever phone works the best and has the most attractive volume pricing.
As long as the phone doesn't sell so poorly that it gets yanked off the market, the retailer-used category strategy can be entirely marketshare-agnostic. Hence, the retailer-used strategy could focus on an entirely different mobile device than other categories. And that's how it should be.
Another area of mobile will be mobile payments. It's not hard to envision a retail community-say three to four years down the road-where mobile payments could replace many of the plastic cards, cash and checks of today. The carriers and handset manufacturers could then play huge roles in payment issues. So a chain might do well to make retailer-used phones support certain carriers and manufacturers, something that may be entirely irrelevant to consumer-in-store and consumer-used decisions.
Wi-Fi access is hardly universal, but it's growing. This month saw players as different as Amtrak and McDonald's offer consumers free wireless access (in select trains for Amtrak, in all stores for McDonald's). The Wi-Fi factor could potentially impact your app and hardware and carrier choices in ways that it's hard to envision today. And it will likely impact the different mobile categories very differently.
Down the road, some chains may want to play with approaches that morph mobile and social. Would stores want to facilitate-nay, possibly even encourage-customers to talk with each electronically? Perhaps a large bookstore-with 200 people milling around-might want to allow one customer to broadcast a message (limited to the store's footprint) "Anyone here knowledgeable about (insert name of popular author)? If so, could we meet by the table near the front window? I need recommendations." Perhaps it would be in a large toy store, with a new father broadcasting: "I'm a first-time father searching for a gift for an 18-month-old daughter. Any parents here who can help me out with ideas?"
If you want to do that kind of mobile social effort, it might impact your purchase strategy. Do you want the communications to all go through a store cloud? If so, you could be hardware/carrier-agnostic. But what if you want to deploy a more sophisticated app that perhaps factors in multimedia and geolocation data? Or perhaps an app that could be at its best when communicating from one Nexus One to another Nexus One? If you're going to offer customers apps, then the customers' devices become important again.
Will the phones use RFID to be part of your CRM program? Will geolocation be fine-tuned with aisle beacons so that the phone could navigate the customer right to the item? (Heck, with item-level RFID, it could even direct the consumer to a misfiled item.) Let's really push merged channel: What if you want to allow customers to see a demo on a store kiosk and to then give those customers the option to download it to their phones for offline viewing from home?
Mobile is clearly a huge area and it will have a massive impact on the future of retail. But today's attempts to squeeze it all into one bucket are simply counterproductive. The sooner the community internalizes that a BlackBerry acting as a smartcard at checkout has very little in common with an iPhone looking up prices and even less in common with that Nexus One engaged in an interactive SMS conversation between a call center associate and a customer trying to haggle on the price of a refrigerator, the better the chance that the chain's mobile strategy-all three of them-will work.
By Evan Schuman
Special to CBSNews.com