Here’s a far-from-merry reality that in-store holiday shoppers are all too familiar with: As the gift-giving season gets closer, the length of—and time spent on—lines at the cash register get longer. (At some popular stores, even getting in requires queuing up.) It’s little wonder, then, that online shopping via computer or mobile device is so attractive. Ironically, one way brick-and-mortar retailers can fight back is by using one of the technologies that threatens to undermine their sales: the tablet.
Indeed, tablet computers, as well as smartphones, are one of the hottest retail trends. According to IDC, the market for tablets saw an 88.9 percent sequential and 303.8 percent year-over-year growth in the second quarter of 2011, and the year is likely to close with 62.5 million units sold. But retailers—as well as restaurants, hotels, and other businesses dealing with the public face-to-face—don't have to sell the devices to reap their marketing benefits, be it for point-of-sale access to CRM systems, product information to make sales associates more helpful, intelligent kiosks for customers, checkout line busters, or power for pop-up store locations.
According to Lee Holman, lead retail analyst at IHL Group, big names are already experimenting. For example, JC Penney, Gucci, and Paxon are testing iPad-based systems, while Nordstrom deployed 6,000 iPads in May and plans "significantly more of them" by year's end. Meantime, retailers like Urban Outfitters and Home Depot are employing handheld media players or smartphones as floor tools.
"It was probably two years ago that I saw my first [tablet] in a trade show," Holman told CMO.com. A recent IHL survey now shows a "preponderance of retailers" planning pilot programs in the next 18 months.
Sudhir Holla, group manager of client services at consulting firm Infosys, said he sees strong interest from his retail clients for tablets, which put more information power into sales associates' hands. "The stores are aware of the fact that they're no longer controlling the customer experience," he said in an interview with CMO.com. Five of his eight top retail-chain customers are either in the process of conducting pilot projects or planning them, he added, and they're also learning how to facilitate and manage the customer experience across different channels.
For industries including retail and hospitality, tablets are employed for two general reasons. One is information. "They're trying to get their store associates on equal footing with the customer that comes in with a smartphone," Holman said. "He's loaded for bear when he's approached by the store associate."
With a tablet, a sales associate can gain quick, easy access to information not easily available in the past, such as product details, supporting documents, and customer CRM data. Associates can provide guided selling without extensive training or detailed personal knowledge of the products. If a physical location has a limit to the products it can display, then personnel can help customers find what will meet their needs, display the information, and even take orders and have products ship directly to their homes.
Even kiosk locations can become product and service savants. That's what Atlanta-based restaurant chain Fresh To Order is doing in a pilot at its location in the suburb of Buckland. "We're converting tablets into Web-based nutrition self-serve kiosks for guests," said vice president of operations Jesse Gideon, in an interview with CMO.com.
Customers can sort through the menu based on a specific calorie goal or particular restriction, like diabetes management or low sodium. The tablet sifts through potential combinations of menu variations, then presents them sorted by how well they address the consumer's desires.
"You then order your item, swipe your credit card, sit down, and we bring you your meal and take care of you," Gideon said. "We're using it basically as the cashier who's never late, always gets the orders accurate, and knows what you're looking for."
Bring The Store To The Customer
The other major reason retailers are using tablets is to bring store operations to the customer. "In a lot of cases, they're using them as mobile POS devices," Holman said. "Rather than the customer taking their stuff up and standing in a cashiered lane, it's possible for these folks to check out with the associate in the aisle."
At the very least, it's a classic line-busting strategy, said Kathy Thomas, chairman of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association and executive vice president of marketing at Half Price Books, which operates 113 locations in 16 states. "If you have an employee with a tablet, you can set up an info desk or have someone walk around and help customers," she told CMO.com. "They can actually say, ‘We can't find it here, let me find one of our other stores. [Or], I can't find it in the stores, so let me order it online for you.’"
As important, associates could close sales using the tablet and an in-house wireless connection. "A lot of customers will not go stand in line to ask a question," Thomas said. Instead, they will get tired or frustrated and leave, taking their business elsewhere. In a recent regional meeting, Thomas heard from a district manager who was concerned about keeping customers engaged and preventing them from going home and using Amazon as a source.
The pressure on stores for fast service is even greater when it comes to the actual purchase. "People will take an hour shopping, but want to check out in five minutes," Thomas said. "If there's a long line, I'm out of there because I have to get back to work or pick the kids up at soccer." Enabling associates to complete credit-card transactions on the floor helps retain the impatient shopper, and it also removes the time that buyer's remorse might move the consumer to not make the purchase at all. In addition, reducing the number of cash registers increases floor space for merchandising.
One other marketing advantage tablets offer is the ease in setting up a pop-up store—a temporary location that catches consumers at a targeted event. A tablet with cellular connectivity and a credit-card reader suddenly becomes an ad-hoc point-of-sale station.
That’s not to say tablets will suddenly remove all impediments from retail marketers. But they do offer a new, and perhaps cutting-edge, way to build relationships with customers, generate sales, and close business that a company would otherwise lose.