July 23, 2010, 2:45 PM

3 out of 4 retailers have a mobile strategy in place, study finds

Large retailers not in the mobile channel are in the minority, a new poll finds.

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Large retailers not in the mobile channel are in the minority. At least that’s the finding in a recent report from Forbes Insights sponsored by Research In Motion, the makers of the BlackBerry smartphone.

73% of the more than 300 U.S. retailers surveyed for the report say they have some type of mobile initiative in place, while 20% are in the process of evaluating the mobile channel, the study finds. All retailers in the poll had multiple locations and annual revenues of $100 million or more.

With those statistics, it’s not so hard to believe that mobile commerce revenues in the U.S. are expected to hit $23.8 billion by 2015, accounting for 8.5% of all U.S. e-commerce revenues, and 20% of global mobile commerce revenues, according to Coda Research Consultancy.

When it came to implementing a mobile strategy the report found:

  • 10% had already widely implemented a strategy
  • 24% were expanding their strategy rapidly
  • 39% were in pilot programs
  • 20% were evaluating their mobile strategies
  • 7% did not plan to pursue a strategy

At first, similar to their approaches to the Internet, many retailers were unsure about the mobile channel, the report says. For example, some feared that mobile phone-toting customers would use third-party shopping programs to find merchandise at a lower price. But over time, the study says, many have seen that as less of a threat than an opportunity.

“Retailers are becoming increasingly aware of the value of smartphone-equipped customers,” the study says. “In-store shoppers can research products and prices on their handsets using cameras, bar code scanners, and other mobile applications. Retailers can provide immediate incentives based on these searches or by knowing the specific in-store location of the shopper via geo-tracking. The customer can make the purchase in-store or over a mobile handset.”

Despite the overall optimism, a significant 20% say mobile, while promising, is unproven, and they are taking an incremental approach to it. Additionally 23% say they are developing mobile tools mainly to keep up with competitors. Still a large 47% say they believe that by being the first to enable mobile engagement they will earn a better chance of establishing intimacy and loyalty with customers.

Some retailers, such as Target Corp., are constantly evolving their mobile strategies, the report notes. The retailer first dipped its toes in mobile with marketing text messages in 2005. In 2008, it developed an m-commerce site. Now it’s established itself as a forerunner in mobile technology as one of their first retailers to launch scannable coupons. After customers opt in, Target begins sending mobile offers straight to their phones. Each offer includes a barcode image that can then be scanned at any register. And Target isn’t alone. Grocery store chain The Kroger Co. is piloting a program to embed the store’s loyalty card into mobile devices and a similar initiative at Ace Hardware Corp. sends coupons and other special offers to customers’ phones, the report notes.

Another growing mobile strategy retailers are examining is exploiting GPS technology in smartphones to offer deals and incentives at stores consumers are close to at any given moment. Companies such as Placecast and Shopkick aim to offer such services, delivering deals, via an app or a text message at stores close to a consumer’s location.

Still the most prevalent mobile tool used by retailers is the mobile site, deployed by 36% of retailers and planned for over the next year by 40%. That was followed by:

  • Mobile advertising: 35% deployed, 41% planned for in next year
  • Mobile web content: 34% deployed, 36% planned
  • Downloadable apps: 33% deployed, 44% planned
  • Mobile coupons: 29% deployed, 39% planned
  • Outbound text messages: 27% deployed, 29% planned
  • Proximity marketing: 24% deployed, 32% planned
  • Paid mobile search: 24% deployed, 23% planned
  • Downloadable brand-related content: 18% deployed, 25% planned

So, why do retailers take the time and energy to enter mobile? The top answers were:

  • Improving customer service: 37%
  • Enhancing customer loyalty: 36%
  • Providing an enhanced or integrated customer experience: 34%
  • Desire to take advantage of new advertising opportunities: 26%

Entering mobile is one task, but having the mobile channel integrate with other operations such as e-commerce and stores is another. The poll showed only 13% have completely integrated their mobile channel with other channels and 40% plan for this in the next year. 61% were somewhat integrated and 17% reported they were not at all integrated.

Even when a retailer decides to enter the mobile realm, it still has decisions to make. One of these includes the types of handsets to target. This is a choice a retailers must make more often when launching an app than with a mobile site, as many mobile sites support an array of phones. While there can be major decisions and investments to make when going mobile, the good news is, it often pays off. 62% of retailers using mobile strategies said their mobile-channel returns are either meeting (45%) or exceeding (17%) expectations. And just 10% indicated their returns are below expectations. 18% say their returns are uncertain.

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