What Will Retailers Do with 2.7 Million Tablets?

If anyone needed more proof that mobile is the hottest trend in retail, RIS News reported this week that the percentage of consumers who made purchases with mobile phones doubled from 2010 to 2011, from 9% to 18%. STORES devoted almost its entire November issue to mobility, too. These are just a couple of additional proof points for the meteoric rise of consumer mobility, which Retail Systems Research describes as the “most galvanizing force (in a positive way) we’ve ever seen in retail.”

Mobile technology is changing the retail landscape in ways that haven’t been seen since the rise of e-commerce. However, the trend that’s captured my attention lately is what’s happening with mobile devices inside the store – and more specifically, how retailers are using smartphones and tablets inside the stores.

A recent research study from retail analyst firm IHL Group included a fascinating statistic. According to IHL’s survey, more than 2.7 million tablet devices will be shipped for use in North American retail and hospitality by 2015, an increase of 450% over current rates. These figures don’t even take into account the handheld devices that retailers are scrambling to roll out in mobile POS deployments.

The bottom line? Get ready to see millions of tablets and smartphones in retail stores in the next few years, along with fundamental changes in everything from the physical layout of stores to the way that consumers interact with store associates.

61% of retailers surveyed by IHL Group rate mobile technology as their top priority, so what we’ve seen so far in store-based mobile systems is just the beginning.

Early mobile deployments at retailers such as Urban Outfitters, Home Depot, Nordstrom and others have focused primarily on the ways that mobile can improve the store experience. These retailers are looking to mobile devices to get their sales associates out from behind the cash wrap and onto the sales floor, where they can interact with customers, guide the shopping experience, look up product reviews and ratings, and check inventory on out-of-stocks in order to save the sale.  Early deployments are promising, but the changes we’ve seen so far are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here are just a few predictions from a self-professed retail technology geek:

  1. For one, the very nature of store layouts will change dramatically in the coming years.  Retailers have devoted a lot of expensive floor space to cash wraps – space that could be better used for merchandising. Cash wraps are expensive, too; retailers can reduce their capital expenses significantly by replacing fixed cash wraps with mobile devices – while creating a much better customer experience, too, along the lines of Apple’s wildly successful stores.
  2. These changes won’t be limited to Tier 1 retailers, either. If IHL’s projections hold true, mobile devices will proliferate at all levels of retail, giving even smaller retailers the opportunity to provide their customers with an Apple store experience.
  3. Finally, the proliferation of iPads and other tablet devices is ushering in a new wave of advanced applications that move far beyond mobile POS. Clienteling, for example, is far more practical on an iPad, along with accessorizing, accessing ratings and reviews, building side-by-side product comparisons, and much more. Tablets give store associates access to a wealth of information, and highly visual devices that can be used to develop stronger customer relationships and deliver highly personalized service.  Mobile will enable a new era of store applications that can help make the store experience more engaging and relevant.

Mobility is one of the biggest stories in retail technology in years – and at Ketner Group, we’re looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds. It promises to be an exciting ride.