JC Penney’s CEO Ron Johnson is hedging his bets that among other innovations, in-store iPads and iPods will help make his new concept stores a hip place for customers to hang out. Ron is not alone in his mission; Macy's, Staples, Urban Outfitters, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Sephora, Clinique (the list goes on and on) are all in the process of piloting new in-store digital technologies.
However, “hip” is not a business case. In-store technologies must not only digitize existing experiences but, in doing so, must improve upon or completely re-invent them. As I see retail technology concepts like magic mirrors, virtual shelves, augmented reality displays, and touchscreen kiosks, I worry that retailers are getting swept away in the hysteria of the technology and are failing to articulate the value proposition that these technologies offer to the consumer.
Don’t get me wrong; many of these in-store digital experiences resonate well with the tech-savvy Gen Y shopper, but do they make the shopping experience more convenient?
Picture the scene: Mom has 20 minutes to spare on the way to pick up the kids from school, so by the time she’s found a parking spot, she has 10 minutes (at best) left to walk into the store, find what she is looking for, pay for it, and get out again without risking being late. Does she have any chance of meeting her SLA? Probably not, unless she knows exactly what aisle the product(s) she needs is in, whether the product(s) is in stock, and whether the checkout lines are empty.
As we roll towards 2013, the tide is turning; leading online brands, including Apple, Best Buy, Four Seasons Hotels, and Rue La La to name a few, are now putting the features of HTML5 to use on their desktop sites with the goal of enhancing the online experience for customers using modern browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and IE9. We are at an inflection point: With consumer adoption of HTML5-“capable” desktop browsers widespread and web developer understanding of the technology rapidly maturing, HTML5 is no longer an emerging toolset for mobile and tablet development. Instead, it is fast becoming the de facto standard for web experience innovation across touchpoints.
As eBusiness teams evaluate the business case for HTML5 on the desktop, it is important to remember that this not an all-new technology— it is a collection of individual features that extend the existing W3C HTML standards. The decision to start using HTML5 or CSS3 does not require any changes to or throwing away of existing code. Instead, eBusiness teams can simply enhance the user experience of existing sites by incrementally using the new features of HTML5. HTML5 puts more tools in the box, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of how to build the website.
If you’ve been chatting with your web development team recently, you might recall them talking about responsive design. But, what is responsive design and why should eBusiness professionals be taking it seriously?
First, responsive design is not a technology, it’s a development philosophy - an approach to web development that forces user experience developers to design and optimize from the outset for multiple touchpoints including (but not limited to) the desktop, tablets and mobiles. Until now, many eBusiness teams have either developed their mobile site by coding a separate set of templates, or outsourcing to a 3rd party vendor or agency whom in many cases scrapes or proxies existing content from the desktop site. As many retailers and other eBusiness teams start to develop optimized tablet sites, there is a distinct concern that supporting 3 different sites for desktop, tablets and mobile is becoming increasingly expensive and is causing a drag on innovation momentum.
With a responsive site, developers use a single set of front-end code to build a site that responds within the constraints of the device to deliver an experience that is contextual to the size and orientation of the screen. Responsive design allows eBusiness leaders to consolidate their teams (UX designers and developers) back into a single ‘web’ team aligned around a single technology (CSS3 & HTML5) and writing a single set of code. Some eBusiness leaders are referring to this consolidation as back to “one-web” and are increasingly intrigued by the potential cost and efficiency benefits that moving to a responsive site has to offer.
The online registration page has always been a necessary evil. Despite the obvious need to collect customer information online, 11% of US adults have previously abandoned an online purchase either because they didn't want to register online or the site they were visiting was asking for too much information. Many websites make it downright difficult to register, with seemingly endless input fields, complex password requirements and even annoying captchas all conspiring to make the process of buying online incredibly frustrating. To put this in context, a retailer with $200m of annual online revenues could be leaving a further $22m on the table simply due to the complexity of the registration step in their checkout process. But this is old news. For years eBusiness professionals have obsessed with optimizing the registration process, using A/B and multivariate testing to try and find the right balance between collecting enough customer information and exasperating their customers.
However, the days of optimizing the registration process may be fast coming to an end. In fact the playbook on customer registration tactics is being completely rewritten as a new and increasingly familiar button takes hold across the web:
Since the 1970’s, retail stores have slowly undergone a digital evolution. POS systems replaced cash registers, credit cards became the payment norm, and security tags reminded shoppers to pay. Despite these changes, the fundamentals of the customer shopping experience remained unchanged: We still pick up products, ponder a decision, and either leave empty-handed or wait in line to pay.
However, in the digitally connected store of 2012, big changes are underway. Fixed checkout aisles and cash registers are being replaced by smartphone-wielding store associates who now take the checkout to the customer. Furthermore, the smartphone generation performs self-assisted checkouts directly from their phones while sleek new in-store touch-screens allow them to experience products without opening the box or removing the coat hanger.
The technologies being adopted. Retailers such as Lowe’s, Gap, Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Sears are rolling out smartphones and tablets to their store associates and investing in next-generation interactive displays and kiosks. Certain solutions are starting to prevail across retailers.
The empowerment of the sales associate. Armed with smartphones and tablets, empowered sales associates are helping customers on the shop floor as well as busting checkout queues with mobile POS.
For the next 2 minutes as you read this blog post, please try to forget about Apple the product company and instead focus on Apple the retailer. Two years ago, Apple undertook a worldwide roll out of iPod Touches to its store associates. These devices came wrapped in a sled adding a 2D bar code scanner and credit card swipe capabilities to the hardware lineup and enabled store associates to perform mobile POS transactions anywhere in the store. Ever since the retail industry has been playing catch-up with retailers like Lowes, Gap, and Home Depot recently following suit with respective rollouts of mobile POS functionality to their store associates.
Today Apple raised the bar. Customers in the US can now use their own iPhone 4 or 4S in conjunction with the Apple Store app (one of my favorite mobile shopping experiences and complete with a fresh update) to scan the bar code of most in-store products and perform a self-checkout. The feature, called EasyPay uses the iPhone’s rear-facing camera to scan a product bar code with payment occurring via a simple authentication to iTunes, just like any other in-app purchase. The core difference is that Apple is now allowing in-app purchases of physical merchandise, albeit restricted to Apple at this time. Once payment is complete, the customer simply strolls out of the shop showing their digital EasyPay receipt to a member of staff as they exit. Time will tell if EasyPay results in any increase of in-store fraud for Apple, but for the consumer that knows what they want the convenience of EasyPay is crystal clear.
With the holidays rapidly approaching, eBusiness executives face many a sleepless night as their eCommerce infrastructure comes under attack from hordes of festive online shoppers. These customers are buying online to avoid the crowds, queues and stress of the mall and they demand nothing short of an exemplary online experience. Slow pages, site outages, and checkout problems will at best cause frustration as loyal customers switch channel to the call center or brick and mortar stores, however most customers will simply take their business elsewhere. These customers will end up buying online from your competitors, but before they do, you can bet they will express their dismay on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and even through your own online reviews. The damage will extend beyond the online channel and the impact on brand reputation will be widespread and long lasting.
No more aware of this than anyone are eBusiness executives. Q4 sales will either make or break entire annual revenue goals and the c-suite have zero tolerance whatsoever for site outages or transactional problems online during the holidays. Jobs are on the line.
Only last week Targets head of online retailing, Steve Eastman left the company after a high profile site outage back in September left shoppers staring at this screen all day long as they frantically tried to get their hands on an exclusive and limited range of luggage, clothes and house wares from Italian designer Missoni.
Have you been sitting on the mobile commerce fence? Ready to make the jump? Good for you, but you may not be prepared for the maze of solutions and vendors at hand to help you implement your mCommerce strategy. The number of vendors and diversity of solutions in the market is quite staggering, and the search for the right solution may feel like shopping in a busy Moroccan market, with an overwhelming choice of wares and vendors bargaining hard for your dollars. Leaving with the right purchase is a daunting task.
However, before you rush into evaluating solutions and signing contracts, eBusiness professionals must take a step back and look at the different implementation paths open to them for mobile commerce. These are:
Using technology from your existing eCommerce platform vendor.
Outsourcing to your interactive agency or systems integration firm.
Building it all in-house.
Leveraging a mobile commerce point solution.
In my latest report, a market overview of mobile commerce solutions for retail, I look at 14 established mobile commerce point solutions that have particular strengths and a proven record of accomplishment in the retail sector. These vendors between them empower the mobile commerce sites and apps for an exhaustive list of who’s who in US and European retail. The report focuses on the respective strengths of the solutions with respect to the needs of retailers. The vendors we looked at were:
A fundamental transformation of the way brands and consumers connect on the Internet is amid us. Icann, the authority responsible for Internet domains, has approved a plan to expand the 22 currently available domains (.com, .net, etc.) to allow trusted brands and organizations to apply to own and operate their own gTLDs (generic top-level domains). In just a few years, new brand gTLDs will impact the way consumers search for and find products online as recognized brands switch away from .com to their own .brand top-level domains. URL paths used today for categories, products, and marketing campaign landing pages (e.g., www.apple.com/iphone) will be replaced by new shorter, catchier URLs (e.g., iphone.apple).
eBusiness professionals must carefully evaluate this change and start the process of mapping out how owning their .brand domain will impact their eCommerce sites. I recommend that Forrester clients read our latest research report written by my colleague Jeff Ernst and myself, .Brand And The Impact For eBusiness, which outlines the reasons why eBusiness leaders and their marketing counterparts must carefully evaluate the significant opportunity that owning gTLDs for the their brand or brands presents.
Mobile apps are undoubtedly cool, and executives at leading online retailers have been mandating a presence of their brand in the Apple and Android app stores, but eBusiness professionals must focus on building a cohesive mobile strategy that clearly identifies the case and role for apps within their organizations. Apps are great ways to engage with your customers, but will they deliver incremental revenue above and beyond what the mobile Web is already doing? In her recent mobile commerce forecast, Sucharita Mulpuru explains that mobile commerce is set to transform retail, despite only accounting for 2% of online web sales today. In my new report The State Of Mobile Commerce Apps, I peel back the covers on the hype and take a serious look at why, when, and how eBusiness professionals should approach their mobile app strategy. Some of the issues I explore include:
The mobile web versus app debate. The debate is irrelevant, consumers are using both in equal measures; however, developing an app for apps' sake is missing the point and will only disappoint your customers. eBusiness professionals must develop unique app experiences that deliver multichannel innovations and raise the engagement of the consumer with your brand.
Keeping up with the explosion of consumer touchpoints. Having an iPhone app was the priority back in 2010, but in 2011 many eBusinesses are adding Android, iPad, and Windows Phone 7 apps. The opportunity for apps also extends beyond the consumer. Retailers are investing in apps for store associates empowered with mobile devices, in-store kiosks, and interactive TV.