Magazine Article | April 17, 2008

Mobility Empowers Consumers

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

What are you doing to empower the mobile tech-enabled shopper?

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, May 2008

I remember a Stephen Wright joke I heard way back when self-service gas stations were the new thing. Wright is the wild-haired comic famous for witty twists on common words and sayings.

"I saw a sign at a gas station that said 'help wanted,'" he deadpanned. "A sign below it said 'self-service.' So I hired myself. Then I made myself the boss. I gave myself a raise. I paid myself. Then I quit."

Believe it or not, that joke was really funny before self-service technologies became so pervasive. Today, consumers really are in charge. I wonder what Wright will make of the emerging consumer-centric trends and technologies in retail — things like the self-service returns kiosk I saw a few months back at NRF, or the prediction that Next Retail Group CEO Dan Hopping shared with me when he said, "The end of the supply chain will soon extend beyond the POS and into the consumer's pantry."

I recently had the pleasure of listening to back-to-back presentations by Hopping and Motorola Retail Market Manager Frank Riso, both of whom focused on the future of retail technology. Not surprisingly, much of the discussions revolved around mobility. Both speakers relayed the advances that shoppers in Asia have made using mobile technology to help them make purchases of everything from fast food (you can assign a special ring tone to alert you when the Big Mac you ordered with your cell phone is ready) to groceries (scanner-equipped phones empower shoppers to check the freshness of bar-coded food). In China alone, mobile transactions are expected to hit $1 trillion by 2010.

Culture, Infrastructure Barriers
Two major impediments lie in the way of U.S. consumers experiencing the same shopping empowerment. The first is cultural — as consumers, we're not as tech-savvy a nation as China, in part because our generation shifts aren't as powerful and pervasive. The population of China is more than 1.3 billion. When a healthy percentage of its consumers adopt a technology, they do so with force and conviction. Imagine the collective power of 500 million people that fall into what Gartner calls the digital natives, that generation that has never known a world without cell phones and the Internet. If that many people want to use those tools to shop, the country's retailers will find a way.

The other roadblock to real mobile consumer empowerment here is software infrastructure. Consider the inventory and merchandise management consequences of the single-channel, multiple- touch-point supply chain. In other words, giving consumers the power to shop and buy anytime from anywhere will certainly test your ability to control and manage inventory.
The two major U.S. retail technology spending initiatives this year are inventory management and POS, according to a joint study by IBM and the NRF. If what's happening in China is to make its way to North America, those two projects are timely. As retailers here improve those systems, they should be planning for such things as pantry-level order entry and making sure their transaction processing engines play nicely with the leading consumer mobile technologies.