How Tablets, Smartphones and Facebook Are Changing the Way People Shop

By W. Sean Ford — February 14, 2012

The e-commerce marketplace continues to evolve at an exponential rate. Channels such as tablets, smartphones and Facebook are today offering the most innovative marketers a doorway into a new era of "discovery commerce."

Consider how much has changed in the last 10 years. Amazon pioneered online directed search, teaching us how to search on our PCs for specific items, sizes and colors, in an extremely efficient but almost exclusively transactional way.

Over time, e-commerce has drifted into "surprise me" mode, with offers around closed sales and special deals creating a new set of personalized expectations for the PC and, increasingly, mobile shopper. Personalized offers from companies like Rue La La and Groupon have become immensely popular and successful, yet remain largely transactional in nature.

Today, the tablet is driving the next important shift in the e-commerce landscape. As tablet ownership grows (projected at 90 million in next two years,) it is creating new ways for consumers to experience brands and conduct commerce. The tablet is a catalyst for greater personalization, immersion and inspiration. Via the tablet, we can mirror the discovery and enjoyment of the in-store shopping experience in a digital and mobile world.

Tablet, smartphone and Facebook users are a powerful new segment of connected consumers and brands, retailers, agencies and marketers must be ready for them. The first step is to understand how today's connected consumers are using these devices and channels to discover products and be inspired to spend. With a number of surveys and research reports published recently, including one commissioned by us, we now have the data that provides this insight. Here are three of the most important points brands and retailers must understand as they prepare to capture the hearts and wallets of today’s higher-spending connected consumer:

1. Consumers don't want to buy through apps. It's easy to assume that a branded smartphone or tablet app is vital to your mobile commerce strategy. However a recent study found that smartphone and tablet apps are not today's consumer's preferred method of shopping. In fact, just four percent of consumers prefer to use branded apps to shop – while 87 percent prefer to use websites or mobile sites. While there is certainly a role for apps as part of a larger customer engagement or loyalty strategy, retailers have been expecting too much when they rely on apps to carry the full burden of driving mobile and tablet transactions.

2. Tablet use and spending activity is on the rise. According to data from Pew Research, tablet ownership in the U.S. doubled over the 2011 holiday season with nearly 19 percent of adults now owning a tablet. Our recent research found that 87 percent of tablet owners did their 2011 holiday shopping using their tablets, spending $325 on average. And 49 percent said they expect to shop more on their tablet in the next year.

Factoring in the stat mentioned above, that 90 million people will be using tablets by 2014, these "couch commerce" consumers are arguably one of the most important market segments retailers and brands need to target in their mobile commerce strategy. Yet a recent Compuware survey of 30 of the top retailers found that none were yet optimizing their sites specifically for tablets. Retailers and brands have a clear opportunity to create more engaging tablet commerce experiences to improve brand loyalty and increase spending from the growing population of tablet-toting consumers.

3. Retailers and brands must face Facebook. While the Facebook commerce debate rages on, savvy retailers are starting to understand and capture the Facebook opportunity as it begins to emerge. More than three quarters of consumers are active Facebook users, and forty percent of that segment is actively engaged with their favorite brands on Facebook. Yet most retailers approach their social commerce channels as little more than extensions of their blogs. There is a huge, untapped revenue opportunity for retailers to directly sell to their most loyal customer base via their branded Facebook page. One example of a true Facebook commerce pioneer is Express, which has created a revenue-generating storefront directly on their Facebook page. And others are quickly following.

To succeed in the coming years, brands and retailers must understand how consumer shopping behavior is changing. They need to present a consistently branded merchandising and transactional experience across all touchpoints and optimize content to maximize the revenue potential of customers' preferred channels and devices.

Retailers and brands need to think beyond traditional e-commerce and apps, and craft new, more creative and dynamic digital shopping experiences. As customer expectations grow, competition continues, and windows of opportunity narrow. There’s no time to lose.

W. Sean Ford is COO and CMO of Zmags, a provider of rich media mobile and social marketing and merchandising.

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