There's no place like phone? close

Matt Jukes
Matt Jukes
In It's a Random World, Apps
16th December 2010
There's no place like phone?

Hi my name is Matt, and I am an addict. It’s been 34 days since my last tweet, check-in or status update. I am a social media addict who, in a single 24-hour period, is capable of posting upwards of 20 tweets, five check-ins, and three status updates – on a quiet day.

I became acutely aware of my addiction on the eve of my latest holiday, when I dropped my iPhone and shattered the screen. In one absent-minded swoop, I had destroyed my book, my camera, my watch, my calendar, my MP3 player and... my phone. The tiny electronic object, which could never be further than 2m away from me, was useless. This left me isolated, disconnected and clamoring for internet cafés, just to get a fix of what my friends were up to – and that was just the start. Apart from the obvious lack of incoming and outgoing phone calls, I couldn’t perform tasks that would ordinarily slip off my fingers without a second thought.

For starters, I had to print out maps to navigate the most basic city streets; I couldn’t even refer to my phone to orientate myself North. I would walk past store fronts, displaying items I wanted to research further and be at a loss without a search engine and a quick bookmark for later reference. Cute little landmarks that reminded me of my friends were past and forgotten, since I had evolved into a state of clicking and uploading. So to stop and take out a camera was way beyond my limited attention span. I also constantly found myself asking passers-by for the time.

Most tragically, I was unable to ‘check in’ at the North Pole. For a whole month I was plunged into a state of what is now known as ‘nomophobia’.

I am not alone in my addiction; nearly 50% of 16-24 year olds have an internet-enabled phone. This instant access to the internet is set to radically change the purchasing habits of future generations of consumers and it is vital that retailers are prepared to respond.

Before the social media revolution, advertising was often focused on getting the consumer into a store. This mindset is in need of drastic change, for the simple reason that even if a potential customer is in your store, a few simple taps on their phone could easily take them to a competitor’s website, comparing prices. Guy Laurence, the Chief Executive of Vodafone reports that “20% of consumers on Oxford St on a Saturday are online at the same time, checking Facebook and checking rivals prices”.

Mobile social networks like Twitter and Facebook have put all of your consumers' friends into their pocket. And the consumer is happy to have this support – not least in the changing room. Gone is the impulse buy, along with the perennial question, “Does my bum looking big in this?”. Now this question can be answered with a quick photo post. Laurence again reports that this in turn has led to a drastic increase in time spent in a store’s changing rooms, as the potential customer waits for their friends to respond. This is social sharing at its most intimate and empowers the consumer to either purchase the product or, in the face of new information arriving whilst they’re switching between skirts, leave it behind.

Amazon has further empowered the consumer with their latest iPhone application. A shopper can be wandering through a store and upon finding a product they are interested in, whip out their handset and simply scan the barcode. The app then hops online and proceeds to show all the retailers who stock that product, arranged from cheapest to the most expensive. And yes, there is a large ‘buy-now’ button. This gives the consumer unprecedented power over the retailer; never before has direct product comparison been so simple.

In practical terms, this means that bricks & mortar retailers can no longer compete on price alone; logically, this should push the retail industry back into the realm of the service industry.

The internet trade body, IMRG, is estimating that £6.4bn will be spent online this Christmas, and 20% of that through mobile applications. That is £1.28bn changing hands through iPhones, Blackberrys and Android phones.

This bourgeoning market is rapidly being catered for by many high street traders, who are building mobile websites – rather than apps – in order to capture the consumer in the heat of the moment – and specifically whilst in the competitors’ shops, when there isn’t time to download an app.

Marks & Spencer has just launched a fully transactional e-commerce mobile site, to connect with this mobile audience. This is a simple site which works on almost any mobile browser and allows a user to search through their extensive range. But something is missing: nowhere on the site can I find a store locator or contact details. These two features are vital to today’s consumer, who might be checking out the competition while trying on an item of clothing in another retailer’s changing room.

In an effort to get the consumer to spend more time in store, department store Debenhams has initiated a competition with the children’s game of ‘four-square’. Anyone who “checks in” (via the Foursquare app) on a Friday is given a free cup of coffee in their in-store café. This is a fantastic way to get the mobile consumer in the store and keep them inside longer. The only weakness with this is that this free coffee potentially gives them time to sit down, take out their smart phone and check the competitors’ prices of a product.

It’s easy to forget how quickly this change in the consumer's mindset has come about. It was just a year ago that it was only online retailers who were investing in mobile platforms, and the thought of making a payment on your phone was foreign to the mainstream consumer.

But with the advent of the iPhone, which put the internet into everyone’s pocket and Apples App store, which made it easy (and acceptable) to pay for goods through your handset, we now have a new and formidable generation of mobile consumers who are educated about retailers and competitors at the point of purchase.