What people say about mobile and what they do are poles apart, but one fact remains: Mobile experiences in retail aren't yet useful or simple enough to engage customers.

Over the last 12 months, we've been helping retailers understand how people use digital in their shopping journeys.

We've completed user testing in our labs and in-store, online and in-store surveys, in-store observation, interviews and focus groups across six major fashion brands and we've learned a great deal.

Indeed, some of the findings came as quite a surprise - so I thought it worth sharing them here.

I've split our findings it into two posts to make them more easily digestible.

This post focuses on device preferences and usage, while I'll be covering the impact of digital engagement on behaviour prior to a store visit in my next post.

Everyone knows the context: Access to and interaction with digital devices is at an all time high and continues to grow.

The question is how this growing digital addiction translates into behaviour when customers are browsing and buying online and in-store?

Our research into this revealed two very interesting paradoxes.

Paradox 1

Over 90% of people say they would prefer to browse for fashion on their PC (desktop/laptop) or tablet devices than on their mobiles (anything but mobile), yet over 65% regularly use their mobiles to do so.

Source - Biglight research, 2016

The picture is almost identical when it comes to buying, with the vast majority of people saying they would prefer to use anything but mobile to buy products online, yet frequently doing just this.

Why? Well, just because it's so convenient. It seems that, for the majority of people, the convenience of mobile's constant availability offsets the enhanced enjoyability that PC and tablet offer.

Interesting, but perhaps not particularly surprising, and not the whole picture. We learnt a few other things too:

1. Visit frequency is growing

People browse online often, with two-thirds doing so at least once a week, mostly on mobile.

In any given week, people are four times more likely to visit a store online than offline.

2. PC is the cash register

Despite the extensive use of mobile, people still spend more on PC than any other device and spend more on tablet than mobile.

This means that, whilst browsing and buying on mobile is rife, the serious business still gets done on PC.

3. There are very few online-only buyers

Almost everyone who browses for or buys items online (regardless of device) also goes into store to buy as well.

In fact, there are very few online-only buyers.

This has a number of significant implications for brands and retailers:

Mobile Enjoyment

Despite providing an experience that people don't particularly enjoy, mobile is rapidly becoming the dominant browsing device.

Now it can't be the device itself that's the issue (otherwise we all wouldn't have one), so it must be the experience.

All of which begs the question: How can retailers make browsing on mobile much more enjoyable?

There's a huge prize for those that do.

Connecting devices

If users are browsing on mobile and doing so often, yet most spend is on PC, it stands to reason that many purchase journeys will involve multiple devices.

So, how can brands make it easier for users to move between devices during their journey?

Those who do so will deliver better customer value and sell more as a consequence.

Connecting journeys

The vast majority of people who browse and buy online still also buy in-store, not just by using click and collect, but by going into store, browsing and buying.

Smart retailers are already thinking about how to provide customers with useful tools to make the transition from the online to offline worlds simple and convenient.

Paradox 2

Despite being digital junkies everywhere else, people just aren't engaging digitally with fashion retailers in-store.

Research published in 2015 (Deloitte) showed that US customers would prefer to use their own devices to get assistance when in-store, rather than use a device provided by the retailer or ask a member of staff.


Source: The New Digital Divide - Deloitte Digital, 2015 (US)

Our research supported this, with 60% saying they would rather use their own device than devices provided by retailers and 60% claiming to use their mobile in-store to support a buying decision sometimes or often.

Source - Biglight research, 2016

So we didn't find it surprising during our behavioural research that engagement with in-store devices (mostly iPad) was very low, sometimes substantially below 10%.

In fact, we found it came in a poor second to speaking to store staff.

Source - Biglight research, 2016

The big surprise, however, came when we looked at levels of mobile use in store. 

In most stores only 20-25% of customers actually used their mobiles and, whilst there were some examples of higher usage (40% in one case), this was the exception rather than the rule.

Source - Biglight research, 2016

Where customers did use their mobiles, it was mostly for normal phone-type functions, such as calls, texts, emails and checking the time.

Few used their mobiles to support a purchase (usually well below 10%) - nowhere near the number we expected.

For those who did use their phones to support a purchase, the most common activity was taking pictures of products and sharing them. 

More often than not they did this using WhatsApp, in preference to any digital services provided by the retailers involved.

When asked why they didn't share the product details provided by retailers, customers said they prefered sending their own images, as they were more realistic.

So here's the thing: People of all ages admit to being digital junkies, to the extent that some worry about the effect this has on their children, yet when they are customers in a fashion store they are digitally disengaged.

Given that what's useful, convenient and simple gets adopted really quickly (think Uber) this has to be because what's on offer today isn't useful, convenient or simple enough.

The opportunity is to establish what customers need (that they don't already get) then provide digital services that meet these needs - crucially, they must be simple to use on devices customers want to use.

We've made a start on this and found that (for the moment at least) customer needs are surprisingly simple, with more information about product, stock and size availability being the overwhelming unmet need in-store today.

Source - Biglight research, 2016

Whether they have come into store looking for something specific or just to browse, once customers have decided to buy something, the need is the same.

Can I buy the item here now? Is it in stock anywhere else? Can I get it tomorrow?

Of course balancing availability with demand has been a challenge for retailers for over 100 years, but we now have the potential to help overcome it by selling stock wherever it happens to be - a chance to provide better customer service and increase sales.

The solution? 

It seems that we need to deliver mobile experiences that adapt to the in-store context and are easier for customers to access and use.

Deploying iPads in-store or giving them to staff allows items to be ordered for collection in-store or delivery, yet customers just aren't engaging with these kinds of solutions at the moment.

Useful, but perhaps not yet easy or convenient enough?

What about mobile? Well, whip your phone out of your pocket in-store today and the most prominent options on most retailers' mobile sites are to find a store or buy online.

Not very useful when you're in the store already with the product you want right in front of you.

However, in-store WiFi and MVT tools, such as Monetate or Optimizely, make it perfectly possible to serve a different mobile experience to customers in-store - an experience that, for example, could simplify the process of searching for out-of-stock items by product code and ordering them for collection in that store.

Clearly all our research has been more than an exercise in academia - we're already looking at ways to create and test exactly these kinds of mobile experiences - watch this space.

We won't be alone though. Forward-looking retailers are on to this and the significant upsides in terms of customer value and sales - so expect to see a lot of innovation in this area over the next 12 to 24 months.

Steve Borges

Published 12 September, 2016 by Steve Borges

Steve Borges is Co-founder of Customer Experience agency Biglight. Follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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