June 6, 2012, 10:32 AM

IRCE 2012 Report: How retailers can win with social and mobile

Be social without selling and build a mobile site before an app.

Lead Photo

Bernadine Wu

Retailers who think they are not being checked out by consumers on mobile devices are mistaken, according to Bernardine Wu, founder of consultancy FitForCommerce and chair of the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2012 e-commerce technology workshop, held on Tuesday. “Someone is at least reading your e-mails on a mobile device,” she said.

At the same time, social media, especially on mobile devices, is still exploding in all directions. 79% of retailers in a Retail Systems Research study agree social media is a business imperative, though the significance of social chatter may yet be unclear.

For retailers hoping to do more on social networks, the key is to jump in and find out where the audience is looking for shopping information—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare—and start engaging there, says Aaron Mandelbaum, CEO of social-focused shopping portal site StyleQuest and a co-presenter about social and mobile best practices at the conference. “Really what we do in the social world is analytics,” he says. “That's key: understanding what works and then backing it.”

He suggests that retailers should listen to social conversations around a brand—what ratings and reviews customers are giving products, and what they're saying about them on social networks--to find ways to improve their merchandise. More sophisticated retailers will find that actually engaging consumers is where most of the value comes out of social media—not just making sales pitches but conversing with customers—and that tracking clicks per channel, for example, will quickly reveal which initiatives are producing the most impact.

“Test, test, test. We can never say too much about testing,” Mandelbaum says. There are even free apps available for retailers that are either proficient or just starting out with social media, he says. He recommends all retailers investigate the mobile apps Foursquare and Eyeona. Foursquare provides location-based deals when a mobile user checks in to a retail location and Eyeona allows consumers to save money by tracking if prices drop after they've purchased an item or wait until an item reaches a price they are willing to pay.

“The mobile environment gives the deals space a second life, maybe a third one,” says Chris Laughlin, senior vice president and program director at mobile and local advisory firm BIA/Kelsey, who spoke alongside Mandelbaum. He says the recent partnerships payment network company American Express established with Foursquare and Facebook, as well as the connection between Google Offers and Google Wallet, demonstrate how payments are becoming increasingly tied to coupons—all meant to ease mobile commerce for customers.

Moreover, Wu added, the rush for social apps that peaked two or three years ago is now slowing down, as retailers realize that consumers typically only engage with five retail apps. So developing a mobile-optimized Internet site has become more important than developing an app, she says. Retailers can still make a mobile commerce site have the feel of an app with its design and functions, Mandelbaum continued, and then include a link to the home page to simplify bookmarking for customers.

Mobile devices also bring new challenges to retail, Laughlin warns, citing the Google statistic that 77% of all smartphone owners use mobile Internet while in stores, often looking up product information or ‘showrooming.’ With showrooming, shoppers going to physical stores to scout products and simultaneously research better deals online on their mobile devices. Amazon has even built an app to help consumers find items they see in physical stores  in its online store and then compare prices, Laughlin says.

Retailers should not bar Internet in stores but instead “fight fire with fire,” he says. He advised retailers to engage with users in their stores by offering special promotions specific to each location, loyalty programs or even games like one Target developed with mobile app company shopkick in which customers earn redeemable points by scanning products around a store and visiting frequently.

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