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Smart phones, smart apps, smarter people: Greg Radford on the rise of the digitally connected shopper

If there is one ‘new wave’ trend engaging retailers and businesses at the moment, it’s the burgeoning pool of knowledge, insight and digital tools that shoppers are now drawing on to shop smarter and save more. And while it’s often claimed New Zealand is 12 to 18 months behind global trends, it was staggering to learn at the recent eTail Conference in Palm Springs that retailers in the USA have more like a three to five year lead on their Kiwi counterparts.

As the only Kiwi participant at the conference, my fellow conference attendees from Walmart, Macy’s and Best Buy were streets ahead of what’s happening down here in Godzone. So when it comes to technology use, information access and connecting with customers digitally, we are behind the curve.

Digital shopping, also known as ‘e-tailing’, is an area strongly impacting consumers’ shopping habits—and it all comes down to smart-phones, smart applications and even smarter people. Speakers at the conference, and my subsequent talks with staff at Google HQ in San Francisco, highlighted a number of trends driving a radical change in the way everyday shoppers use technology to get ahead of the game and demand the best value from stores.

US shoppers have been making the most of the smart-phone explosion, from pre-purchase research on the best deals available, to making use of a social media presence for help and advice, to comparing prices with competitor websites while in-store (then demanding a better price). Studies have shown almost 70 percent of smart-phone users were doing so, a figure that has doubled in recent times (Foresee Results Report on Mobile Shopping - US edition 2010).

US retailers were quick to point out this wasn’t new and cutting edge; it’s the way business is now carried out in a retail environment. Customers demand better access to information as they hunt for better deals and prices, with a huge resulting growth in price comparison websites (like Reachmedia's lasoo.co.nz) for those on the move.

For example, since 2009 the number of US smart-phone users making use of these sites has jumped from 15 percent to 35 percent. Similarly, store websites optimised for phone viewing, with all the outlet’s product information and availability, is already commonplace overseas, yet in New Zealand many stores lack even the most basic mobile website. These digital advances not only act as a leveller for retailers as their prices and services become more comparable and transparent, but also offer untapped potential to connect with customers in a personal, customised and business building way, through their mobile phone.

The final trend that has struck a high note with customers off-shore is the growth of video content in-store and online. In a shift from static imagery, stores are now delivering digital product videos. You’ll see how it works, the product in action, views from all angles, basically everything that makes it that little bit more tangible than just a picture. It’s commonplace in the US, and major sites are seeing up to a 55 times increase in search engine results and seeing an 85 percent success rate of video viewers buying the product.

These trends aren’t distant on the horizon. They are arriving on our shores here and now. Kiwis are rapidly embracing smart phones. Our retailers would be wise to adapt and make the most of these emerging trends. The use of in-store smart-phone applications, like Reachmedia’s recently launched iPhone lasso.co.nz app (growing 21.5 percent a month), and Android and Windows Phone apps, present a unique opportunity to talk to customers in a relevant way about what interests them, build on customer loyalty and become a trend-setter in digital shopping.

It's commonplace overseas and a major drive in Google’s next stage development and retailers report massive sales increases as a result.

The International Data Corporation recently forecast the Android and Windows Phones to take first and second place in popularity ahead of the iPhone by 2015 as lower phone cost, cheaper data and post-recession spending boosts their attractiveness. With device sales and increased use of the iPhone, Android and Windows Phones only moving upward, it’s not a matter of will this smarter, savvier shopper arrive. It’s when.

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