November 29, 2009...9:34 pm

Will Mobile Phones Replace In-Store Retail Salespeople?

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Mobile phones have to be one of the best on the spot, at the moment, information retrieval resources of all time.  How many times have you seen disagreements settled immediately, courtesy of a quick iPhone web research query?  Well, it looks like some companies are ready to capitalize upon our penchant for instant research about things that interest us.

Let’s flash back to a recent industry panel where a senior Best Buy executive said “The right information at the point of impulse increases desired consumer’s behavior, sales, profits and customer satisfaction.”  That sure sounds like a description of one of Best Buy’s best in-store salespeople helping out customers standing next to the latest electronic gizmo in one of their stores. 

It isn’t. 

The conference was a mobile conference and the speaker was the senior manager of marketing and emerging capabilities at Best Buy.  She was talking about using mobile phones – not salespeople – as the information source at the point of impulse. I guess there is nothing like a little recession to make retailers think a little harder about how utilize our collective penchant for using our mobile phones for quick research projects and potentially saving some money in labor costs in the process.    

Here’s how it works:  Using the mobile phone, customers can request information about any product on demand in a Best Buy store with a call to action on a product fact tag in store. What a great idea for consumers (no more pesky sales people asking ‘how can I help you’) and what a great idea for Best Buy (cut a little payroll here and there as the idea takes hold – I know, I know, not one salesperson will be fired as a result of this technological advance which is solely dedicated to the betterment of our customers:)

The truth is that we are already moving more and more to a self-service environment, anyway.  Why not leverage the mobile phone to eliminate cost, bring down prices, reduce the frustration in trying to flag down elusive salespeople to ask questions, and give us another excuse to have fun looking up info on our mobiles?  It sure makes sense to me.

So, let’s take this one step further. 

What if retailers gave us the opportunity to engage in interactive texting?  Think of all the time we waste, and frustration we accumulate, in big box stores feeling like we always have to muscle in to get a little service.  Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to just text in the question via mobile phone?  Then, get an answer and re-text our next question?

Why stop at electronics stores? What a great way for bookstores to compete with online retailers – just text in the title you are looking for and receive information on whether or not it is in-stock and where it can be found. 

And, how great would it be to have self service mobile Q&A on the new car lot?  I don’t really like all of the sales pressure from those pushy car salespeople and now I can avoid it once and for all.  For good measure, I could just text the offers and counteroffers back and forth and never have to talk to them in person!

The best application, though, would be in high end department and apparel stores.  After trying on the overpriced designer suit, I could text in the question “How does it look?” I guarantee the response will be the same as if I had asked an in-store salesperson (who could actually see me in the suit) the same question.

On second thought, text messaging just can’t replace the sincerity of those baby blue eyes telling me I how good I look, even if they don’t really mean it.


23 Comments

  • Hi Mark – This will also help marketer’s track consumer behavior better. Since we are converting human touchpoint with a digital touchpoint, it’d be better documented.

  • Hello there.

    This is already a reality in some stores, with most of the high end chains in the UK already moving towards such applications. We are involved in a number of such projects that combine mobile and instore to create a seamless shopping experience, especially when the shops are busy and salespeople are hard to find.

    If you include the use of augmented reality to see how an item of white goods/TV etc would look in your home, a price/product comparison guide, a feature to share with friends and an instant checkout/delivery service, so you never have to carry any bags around, it could well be the Perfect Shop.

    However, it can go horribly wrong. If the product descriptions are useless, if there is conflict in store between mobile sales, and those generated by the sales team or if the ‘recommendations’ are biased or skewed towards end of line or high commission goods, then customers will soon realise that they are being conned.

    Also if tech replaces common sense, such as a text message conversation (clunky and slow), an application that works for less than 10% of your customer base (not inclusive, off putting), an interface that pushes unwanted items or an experience that is too ‘brand’ and not easy enough then users will simply get a negative brand reaction.

    Of course, what brand would do that? Well, all those examples bar one happen with current in store mobile products for major high street stores, and the other (texting) was suggested in this very article.

    This is early days of these sorts of engagements, but even so, it is too easy to see that marketing people have gotten carried away with what would be cool, rather than what is actually useful.

    Ben Scott- Robinson
    We Love Mobile

    • Thanks for a very informative reply, Ben.

      I recently saw a much quicker interactive text reply technology, though, that got automated text replies back to the user within ten seconds. But, I do agree it is still a ways to go until interactive texting is ready for seamless deployment at retail.

  • Hi Mark,
    One scenario that would worry me if I was e.g. Best Buy: if we encouraged consumers to dig out more product info while shopping in the the store they would also likely jump to the Web to do price comparisons. They might also look up an altogether different product that would be available at someone else’s store or online.
    Vesa

  • Hey Mark,

    Isn’t this what Snap Tel is all about? take a photo of any product and get all the info you want about it? i know the texting part is a bit different and getting back an immediate answer -but you can see that this is really happening in real time already, now it’ll be about developoing platforms and of course a monitization strategy for folks like snap tel to get brands (like best buy) to pay a licensing fee to have their product info and support FAQ’s built in (to get those pesky questions answered).

  • Great post and it picks up on a theme I have started to identify in the UK and talked about at some conferences. Great to see others out there also thinking in the same way. The idea that I can provide customer service ‘on the go’ in a sense. I have just blogged about it (http://bit.ly/5CzMPT). Is it a game changer? I’m not sure yet, but it certainly has the potential to be so.

  • This is a fascinating concept to share — and I think it could be used at all levels of retail. I don’t think “texting” is likely to be effective for many uses, and I definitely believe that “real people” need to be handling many queries, probably using voice calls.

    I absolutely agree that many stores could benefit from having trained sales staff available by cell phone, to answer questions and alert customers to specific “upselling” opportunities — needs that some store staff might not remember (“This is a great digital camera, but it only includes a very-low-capacity memory card. Would you like to buy an 8GB memory card also?” or “This printer doesn’t include a USB cable, and do you have any open USB ports? If not, buy a USB hub”). This should increase consumer satisfaction and reduce returns.

    Of course, this requires that the people answering the phones be knowledgeable and well-trained. If the chain is willing to entice its best salespeople to move to the phones, this could work — but I can anticipate lots of turf battles and compensation issues.

    Good people on the phones may be superior to in-store sales staff when you’re talking about complex or big-ticket items, but for many categories a web solution may be more effective.

    When I am shopping in a bookstore, Amazon.com (via my iPhone) does a much better job of helping me to choose books than any sales staff. (Of course, using Amazon.com to find reviews of a book I’m considering will also remind me that I could save $10 if I can just wait 5 days for the book — but I do buy more books at Borders stores because of the information I can get from Amazon.com while I’m standing in the Borders store.)

    Yesterday, my wife and I were at K-Mart and couldn’t find the bottled-water dispensers (water coolers, for our home office), and it took a while to find a salesperson to guide us to that area . Imagine if we could use our iPhones, whether using a web browser or just calling, to ask simple questions like this. (Some chains could provide this information from their corporate office; many could not.)

    I’ve also used my iPhone while shopping for things like printers and laptop computers, to check the merchant’s web site to get more information about a specific model (and of course to check if their online price is lower).

    What’s missing, for most stores, is real-time inventory: I can go to Borders.com and learn that a title is “probably in stock” in a specific local but not if it’s actually in stock (store staff informed me that “probably in stock” actually just means that “this store had a copy in inventory at some time” — they really don’t like facing unhappy customers who’ve driven to the store only to find that the book isn’t in stock). I think believe that the Best Buy web site does have access to real-time inventory (so if they say an item is in stock, it usually is, unless it’s been shoplifted or set aside for another cucstomer).

  • jeroen rozeboom

    It’s a nice concept that probably works for some branches and certain client groups.

    It made me think about salespeople: what makes a good salesman? In my view a good salesperson interacts really well with the prospects. As a lot of communication is non verbal, how would we compensate for the lack of information if we no longer meet our prospects in person?

  • Not buying it as a replacement to a good sales person. The mobile app delivers facts/comparisons, the sales person in the Best Buy scenario is good because they pick up on the customer’s exhibition of body language, facial clues and physical dress either conscious or subconscious. The floor sales people who are good read the customer’s ability to purchase up or bargain down. Given the opportunity most will go bargain without a well delivered nudge. A well timed delivery of questioning looks or disapproval on a lower purchase can do what a mobile app can’t… influence an upsell. IMHO.

  • This is an important trend and mobile phones definitely have the ability to take the place of sales people with in retail stores. Given this retailers need to understand that it is critical that they influence the experience on the phones and have some control over the information that is provided to consumers. If they do not, phones will be functioning as their competitors’ sales people not their own.

    As is pointed out above, consumers are researching Amazon and other sites for reviews and comparative pricing. Likewise applications such as ShopSavvy exist to provide that information across a wide array of sites from a scan of the UPC/EAN code. Retailers need to invest in providing the mobile resources and services to consumers so they are inclined to use their mobile information and make their purchases in-store or at least on the retailers online sites. Best Buy has been smart enough to see this trend and is trying to build the mobile tools that will give them some control of the experience and support customers. Other retailers need to take notice and follow suit.

  • With all the tools available to research & shop beyond brick & mortar, when we do walk in, you’d better have a salesforce that’s also 1) armed with knowledge & hand-held tools, and 2) trained to enhance my experience. Otherwise, we won’t return. However, if you do make my experience richer, we’ll reward you with bigger baskets and return visits.

    The capabilities you mention, Mark, are indeed possible with live, location-aware, context-sensitive, and profile-powered mobile applications. Kombicorp.com builds these for major brands now.

    Coming from this tech-savvy female…the thing about using mobile technology in brick & mortar retail is that it shouldn’t be used to REPLACE salespeople, it should AUGMENT their [albeit limited] presence. Let’s take BestBuy. When I come in with an objective, I’ve already done my research online (desk or mobile) and I want to confirm my plan in person. Kombi’s Wayfinder app can walk me to the product’s location, give me an incentive, and alert Sales I’m here and likely to buy (using my profile history). (This is MY CTA to BestBuy!) The AR features can provide all product details; the Social feature can tether me to fresh user comments; & I can even schedule the Geek visit, etc.

    So, what’s the best function for the in-store Salesforce? Close.

    Guide me. Take me on an adventure, fill in the gaps, orient me to another companion product I hadn’t thought of, or to a use I might not be aware of, or..? Make my BestBuy experience richer yet. Augment the interactive mobile app by expanding my awareness of what else Best Buy has to offer that fits into the context of this visit. And close the sale.

    That might also be accomplished by someone in a contact center (again, using my profile preferences), but they have to simulate the real thing (video? Avatar? voice + push?)

    So Retail has to learn how to integrate all the tech tools with their salesforce and bring the whole package to bear on the consumer experience. Nothing’s going to replace live human interaction, but it sure can enhance it, for both the consumer and the retailer.

  • I’d be concerned about two factors:
    1. Texting isn’t generally free (‘tho we’re headed that direction) – having customers charged for access to information about a product you’re trying to sell them seem likely to create some resistance and possibly resentment.

    2. Assuming that the customer will end up using some kind of app on their smart mobile device to not only interact with the store’s product info portal but to do some comparison pricing (if you make the info available then users are free to innovate with that info). The result would be the creation of an “on demand” pricing environment where the retailer may need to recalculate the offer price due the price offered for on-line ordered and delivered tomorrow pricing from an on-line retailer. This would further cut into the retailers margins (bringing on-line and brick-n-morter retailers more into alignment on pricing). The result would be the retailer’s margin over the internet retailer is, in effect, a “convenience charge” for having it today. The impact of this kind of change in sales mode is huge… you could have different customers paying different prices for the same item at the same time. Keeping track of this and supporting this in the POS systems will be a huge effort.

    The net is that something like this is coming… the question is which retailers will be best placed to exploit this disruptive technology? Another question is how best to implement such a solution? Is it by in-store open wifi? Is it all via the Mobile Carrier’s broadband network? Is it via short range bluetooth? Is it some combination of the above and is it an open standard or some array of proprietary “standards” that push and shove for dominance while trying to leverage the solution to some specific participant’s advantage?

  • I can see text being a supplemental source of in-store product information. I believe the “text service” driven world you relate above is a little too extreme.

  • While technology is greatly increasing our ability to price-shop, I cannot see how mobile phone apps (no matter how smart they are) will remove our human need for interactive conversation that sales person and potential customer are involved in. I can see how self-checkout stations help people to move through endless wait-lines at supermarkets, but I cannot see how other retails could benefit by removing a human face behind a sales counter. What can be a good way to use technology – remember “Miracle on 34th street” movie – department store undertakes a mission not to every product to customers – rather help them find the product they need and get the best price for it (even if it means customers have to go to a web page or to another store to get the product).
    We (humans) are not robots and no matter what technology advantage is there – human-to-human interactions is what brings most sales transactions to completion

  • If I can add some further comments. I think it is important to start thinking about what a cell phone adds to the company-customer engagement. A mobile phone by its very nature is not fixed to a physical space. This means that through the use of a mobile phone the actual engagement between a customer and a company can begin at any point. In terms of a purchase, the customer could be on their way to a store or simply tweet that they are thinking about buying a product. At this point a company could begin engaging with a customer, pushing content to the customer, letting them know they have got the items they’re interested in put aside to have a look at and compare with other products, who to ask for when they get to the store etc. The whole idea of the pre-purchase/purchase/post-purchase funnel needs to be re-evaluated in light of the fact that with a cellphone, particularly a smartphone, and the impact of social media the nature of the engagement has changed and is undergoing fundamental changes.

  • On a “for example” topic… I was discussing this idea with a co-worker and he related a story of how he recently purchased some music the other day. He was at a friends and there was some music he liked playing on the CD player. He took his smart phone (myTouch) and scanned the UPC of the CD case and then ordered the same CD via Amazon.

    Now, imagine him being in a store… the retail store has invested in the physicality of having the inventory at hand… but the consumer can simply scan the UPC and get bids from a number of online retailers within a few seconds. Now the choice is which is the better value, the price for having the item now or waiting for it to be delivered. Its this kind of interaction that is coming, regardless of whether retailers embrace it or not… The question is are they ready for the disruptions of business models its likely to cause?

  • Mark – Thanks for sharing, this is interesting.

    It is actually possible that in the future, the in-store retail salespeople, the cashiers, and the brick-and-mortar retailers go away all together.

    When you think about it, when you go to a brick-and-mortar store you can already get all kinds of product information, including competitive pricing, in a split second. For example, on the iPhone platform, there is an app called RedLaser (among others) that directly scans the barcode off a product to provide a full set of information to facilitate the purchase decision process.

    If we combine that with the tests that are currently underway in mobile payment (E.g: have a look to this article that I was reading this morning –> http://www.downloadsquad.com/2009/12/02/square-starts-testing-a-mobile-payment-system-for-the-iphone/ ), we may be tempted to think that even the cashiers may progressively be replaced by digital streams of information flying in the air at light speed.

    Last but not least, when the long tail models of marketing segmentation, that have orginally been spawned by the adoption of the Internet, will gain in granularity, consumers will have fewer and fewer incentives to go through the hassle of brick-and-mortar retail shopping. The convenience of buying on-the-go and of being delivered products anywhere you want, anytime you want, may very well gradually replace the dusty, and working capital heavy, traditional retail model.

    In my view, it is just a matter of time before we trust and adopt the limitless opportunities stemming from the mobile world… How much time?

  • Some interesting comments raised by people but some people have already raised a number of issues that will have an impact on the overall customer experience;
    for example; texting is not free, not everyone has a ’smartphone’, there is a potential to go ‘off site’ and then not buy, mobile phone infrastructure is just not there in terms of speeds and bandwidth (everywhwere)

    Take a look at http://www.iscanetworks.com/ to see another way of achieving what you want that is ubiquitous.

    Cheers
    Steve

  • Mark: great article. The possibilities are endless, and I agree that there’s plenty of room for new mobile applications in retail. You forgot to add that mobile phones don’t need breath mints, chew gum, or have painful-looking body pierces–all great benefits of mobile devices, when it comes to customer experience.

    My question is whether there is a minimum amount of face-to-face communication required for certain business transactions. Will consumers continue to accept more and more technology as it’s pushed out? Or, will they demand it? This would be valuable to know, and marketers shouldn’t assume that technology–any technology–will be embraced. Many of us still regularly curse telephony systems that don’t give us a menu option for our simple questions–and don’t offer a pathway to reach a real human, either.

    Texting is cool stuff for the 18-to-40-year old consumer segment, and their buying power is considerable. But what about the needs of older consumers, who similarly have great buying power, but aren’t as predisposed to whip out a cell phone and send a text message when they want product information for a stereo component.

    A related article I wrote on the topic: “Samplesaint Belives Barcodes and Cell Phones are a Heavenly Match.” http://www.customerthink.com/blog/samplesaint_wants_to_prove_that_barcodes_and_cell_phones_are_a_heavenly_match

    It would be great to hear more ideas on this topic.

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  • The question of how much human interaction is the right amount in a sales transaction is a very valid one and I don’t think there is a single answer or a formula to determine this. Rather, I think this is a “call” on the part of good Sales people with appropriate goals.

    As a general rule, sales folks are comp’d based on their sales… Technology’s role is to make them more effective at selling. Contra-wise there are customers whose ability to be sold is seemingly inversely proportional to the efforts of a Sales person to “Sell them”. (Just as there are customers who are proportionately likely to buy based on sales efforts.) A good sales person knows (or should) how to make that call and should be able to direct the prospective customer to the appropriate sales experience.

    The question of how much human interaction in a sale comes down to what’s the value of the transaction? Do you want a Sales person chasing a $10 sale or a $100 sale? For many transactions you (the business) may want a low touch sale because the value of most transactions is low. However, you may want to make sure that having your sales people follow the higher value transactions doesn’t cause you to lose the smaller/lower value transactions. To solve this will require smart tools, analysis of the processes, and the adoption of customer friendly technologies. From things like Mobile Device accessible product information portals to more effective and informative displays… to pod-less (checkout stand-less) retail systems that speed up a purchase.

    Whether the answer is a Mobile Device based solution is more a question of who the customer base is and what kinds of interactions those customers would likely find value from without being frustrated out of buying.

  • I agree it really depends on what is being sold, who it is being sold to, and what the normal sales procedure is. If someone who is tech savvy walks into a store knowing what they want, then something like this might be useful.

    But in many cases, it’s non-tech savvy people going into a store not knowing exactly what they want. Like say they want to buy a flat screen TV. How big? Plasma or LCD? What response rate?

    They don’t even know how important it is to ask those questions, let alone how the features will effect their enjoyment of the final product. Instead they go into a store, look at the big long row of TVs, punch a few buttons, get bewildered at all the choices, then leave and probably go do the same at a competitor’s store provided no one comes up to them. This happens until they either give up and make a blind choice, or can find someone tech savvy who knows how to ask the right questions.

    The availability of auto information online has not put car salespeople out of a job. I very much doubt the in store salesperson is going to up and disappear either.

  • [...] 13, 2009 11:10 pm There was a lot of passionate response to the post a few weeks ago “Will Mobile Phones Replace In-Store Retail Salespeople”.  Even more reason that these three announcements this week caught my [...]


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