Smartphones: Friend or Foe?

As we’ve reported on numerous occasions, consumers are using their beloved smartphones to compare prices, check specs, and read product reviews–often right in front of the product in a store. A new survey from consumer electronics site Retrevo sheds a lot of light on the behavior of the ever-growing legions of smartphone-aided shoppers.

The study shows that 66 percent of all shoppers have checked out a product in-store and gone on to buy that same product online from a different store. What’s more, the number spikes to 78 percent for smartphone owners. It follows that retailers should do their best to get inside that smartphone and finish the sale before the consumer gets to the online-purchasing comfort of their home.

In fact, 43 percent of smartphone owners have downloaded and used a retail app on their device. One might deduce, then, that those apps are falling short–unless there is some other variable at work (*cough*price*cough*). I took it upon myself to go shopping equipped with smartphone and apps to see if I couldn’t gain some insight.


A lot of people love REI, and I’m one of them. REI offers a phenomenal in-store experience, a multitude of knowledgeable sales reps, and best of all, a huge collection of performance outdoor gear. Their brick-and-mortar establishments are top-notch, but how about their mobile incarnation?

Well, I strolled into the downtown store and quickly found a beautiful $275 jacket I could imagine growing old with, so I fired up the ol’ REI app. And it was pretty good. The main page showed an appealing mountain scene. It included intuitive options like “shop products” and “shop brands,” but a quick entry of the product model into the search bar took me right where I wanted to go.

The REI app followed most best practices for quality content.

The product detail page for the Mountain Hardwear Cutaway Jacket was solid. “Description” and “specifications” tabs were easy to find. Bulleted product features were easy to scan and kept the screen organized and not overloaded. The copy was well written, with clear facts and logical feature/benefit connections. Though there were authentic reproductions of outdoor experts all around me, I had no questions left unanswered by this app. I thought, “The app certainly wouldn’t discourage me from purchasing this fine jacket here and now. If only there was a way to quickly compare prices…”

There’s something wrong with product info when “love-glove design” is the most interesting part. 

Best Buy (Is It Really?)

I next tried the same diabolical experiment at electronics giant Best Buy. Brian Dunn, Best Buy’s chief executive, told the Financial Times: “Multi-channel retail is the right solution. Digital by itself won’t be enough. Physical by itself won’t be enough.” Well, he’s on the right track, at least.

I located a simple $50 laptop case that might tickle my fancy. Once more, I primed the corresponding app to see what I could learn.

Best Buy’s app is not quite as good as REI’s, but it’s not awful. The design is a bit bland and unattractive, and the descriptions are limited. For the Timbuk2 Quickie Netbook Case in particular, content was fairly unhelpful. Granted, it’s only a piece of luggage, but the description was bereft of measurements and any features or benefits to speak of. It surely didn’t make the sale, but I wouldn’t say it turned me off–I remained undecided. But then…

Paging Dr. Google

Oh Google, Teller of All Truths.

Since my smartphone is equipped with more than just retail apps, my deciding step in both cases was to quickly Google the item; it took about six seconds and told me everything I needed to know. Searching a product online usually yields pictures and prices from several retailers right at the top of the page.

If your price isn’t competitive, we’ll find out in a matter of seconds.

For the Mountain Hardwear Cutaway Jacket, a single online retailer was offering a lower price than REI’s–$55 lower, with free shipping and zero tax. Somewhat humorously, it seemed every online store offered a significantly lower price for the laptop case than did Best Buy.

Competitive Pricing

There’s something to be said for the immediate gratification of leaving a store with a new prized belonging in hand. But when the discount to be had from buying online is significant, I think most people will opt for that route. For some, money might be no object, and for those people I offer my most ardent congratulations. I, for one, am willing to wait a few days for my item if it means more money in my no-longer-free checking account.

I wish I could say that a well-produced app would trump the price-comparison effect. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but I think any smartphone owner savvy enough to use a retailer’s app is also shrewd enough to Google an item for a quick price check. This is the world we live in. Big brick-and-mortar stores must get real with their pricing, as the ratio of shoppers who do use their smartphones for price comparing will only go up… and up and up (kind of like those bank fees).

Stores will continue to lose sales without competitive pricing. By my estimation, the smartest move a retailer could make would be to adopt innovative price-matching policies. Many stores already have rudimentary price matching, but they usually don’t include online prices–and it’s costing them.

Perhaps retailers could offer attractive coupons for later use when shoppers buy an item that is offered for less online. Or what about matching a percentage of the savings that could be had from an online competitor? If the price were close, I personally would opt to buy in-store more often than not. But if I’m going to save 25 percent or more online, that’s an option I’m going to elect for every time.

The Takeaway

Strong mobile content can only help your cause, but unless your prices are competitive, you will increasingly lose sales opportunities with savvier shoppers.


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