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Retail: Targeted mobile use can achieve ‘holy grail’ of profit growth


Retail: Targeted mobile use can achieve ‘holy grail’ of profit growth

By Michael Dempsey

FINANCIAL TIMES : March 26, 2013

©Bloomberg Strategic dining: the Hakkasan chain has adopted a different ecommerce route to money-off vouchers

The rise of the online shopper has hit traditional retailers hard. But what cheer, if any, can chief financial officers extract from the plethora of technological propositions jostling against hard-pressed outlets?

The mobile phone is feted as a personal shopping assistant but Deloitte, the management services company, thinks the hype around mobile payments, known generically as m-commerce, conceals a far more important truth. “People look at m-commerce but not at the way mobiles can be used to influence the consumer,” says Ben Perkins, head of consumer research at Deloitte.

Mr Perkins’ point is that while UK retail sales using the mobile phone as a payment device totalled £1.5bn in 2012, this figure is eclipsed by the £15.2bn Deloitte calculates was spent as a result of consumers being guided to a purchase by online information delivered to smartphones. “Every finance director is looking for one thing, the holy grail that is profitable growth. And this is definitely an area where mobile technology can deliver a significant impact. But it’s about influence, not about transactions,” says Mr Perkins.

Across the Atlantic, Deloitte thinks mobile influence on store sales in the US in 2012 hit $159bn. It forecasts a US market for such sales reaching $700bn in 2016, against an expected UK figure of £40bn.

These are numbers that could revitalise traditional shopping venues but only if the technology is exploited wisely.

In its report, The Dawn of Mobile Influence, Deloitte puts the case for the mobile device as a mini-shopwindow that allows consumers to research a brand or compare products and prices with items in other stores or online. This is not about firing adverts at consumers as they pass a specific location, a tactic Mr Perkins dismisses as “pretty crude”. Smartphones have to give the consumer a sense that their personal queries are being answered, with highly focused sales promotions replacing blanket discount campaigns.

The aim here is to engage with consumers and prevent their business evaporating into the pure online world. In Deloitte’s view the mobile phone can keep them in-store and spending as long as the retailers learn to build messages that appeal to smartphone-wielding shoppers.

Swedish company Pricer sees the traditional price tag as a vehicle for keeping shoppers in stores. Pricer installs digital price displays that can change in an instant and respond to a customer’s mobile phone via quick response codes that link to product reviews.

Niclas Qvist, global partner manager at Pricer, says: “The idea is to use the electronic display as an inspiration to the customer to shop in a different way.

“The challenge for the traditional store is not to become a showroom where people just look at products and then go away and order online.”

How much of this threat is recognised by the retailers Mr Qvist meets? He says: “They realise they need to change the way they do business in order to survive, especially the electronic retailers in Europe who sit on huge stores that don’t match the growth of online sales.”

Deloitte’s US research indicates consumers are most likely to use a smartphone when shopping in electronic and appliance stores. Switched-on retailers can update prices over wireless connections to guarantee they will match online charges, says Mr Qvist.

For Pricer, the name of the game is to make consumers feel confident about their purchase and not fret about potentially better deals that might be found online.

Original approaches to the role of technology can be seen at Hakkasan, an upmarket Chinese restaurant chain that has opened across the globe from an early start in London.

Paul Deeming, the group’s interim chief financial officer, faces the challenge of promoting the brand name as it rolls out across Los Angeles, Shanghai and Dubai without diluting Hakkasan’s hard-won air of exclusivity. Staff use iPads to gather data from Hakkasan’s diners in a way that suits the venue, says Mr Deeming. “The iPad looks professional and slick and we can get customer information on the spot. That is added to our database straightaway via a portal on the iPad.”

The email addresses gathered by Hakkasan do not provoke a torrent of money-off deals. Instead, the chain contacts diners with invitations to special events at its venues such as music evenings.

Hakkasan’s contacts are only useful if they are farmed imaginatively and Mr Deeming has strong views on the predictable discounts that characterise much of his trade’s marketing efforts. “You have to add value, give the customer an incentive and make people feel they are part of a select club of like-minded people.”

Hakkasan is steering away from the scattergun application of technology that can actually undermine profits.

Mr Deeming notes that some popular food chains are so associated with money-off deals that they have turned into discount destinations where it becomes difficult to persuade diners to pay the full price for any meal.

He says: “This can hit the margins of a big chain and it’s hard to turn that around because the deal becomes part of the customer expectation.”