Lowe’s and Magic Beans Show How Mobile Can Power Commerce

As online marketers, we don’t always consider the impact mobile technology is having in the brick-and-mortar world, but we should. Retailing trends suggest that stores will become conduits for online operations, and that smartphones will become the check-out devices of the future.

It’s already happening, as demonstrated in two recent stories from Internet Retailer. Home improvement giant Lowe’s, for example, is in the process of placing about 25 iPhones in each of its nearly 1,700 U.S. stores. The iPhones will be used by employees as a means of improving customer service. A Lowe’s employee can use an iPhone to access Lowe’s mobile commerce site to get product information and check inventory for customers, both in the local store and surrounding stores. If an item is not available in the local store but is available elsewhere, the employee can reserve it for a customer.

The iPhones will also act as portable customer training devices. A Lowe’s spokeswoman told Internet Retailer:

“Employees will have the opportunity to view how-to videos, to show customers exactly what they mean when describing how to accomplish a project or install a part of a DIY project. We will continue to add functionality to the devices over time, but this will allow for a simple and seamless transition between customers and employees. Our goal is to make home improvement simple for customers and our employees.”

Lowe’s hopes to eventually add mobile ordering so its staff members can place orders directly for customers.

A toy store in Boston has gone one step further, allowing its customers to do in-store checkouts via their smartphones. Magic Beans offers a mobile application so customers can scan a product bar code to get information about a product. But that’s not all — customers can also pay for product in the store and bypass the store register altogether.

When the consumer scans the product bar code, the app connects the consumer to Magic Beans’ e-commerce site, where product information, ratings and reviews reside. The first time a shopper uses the application, they can store credit card information. Then they simply add the products they want to purchase into a virtual cart, pay via the credit card, and leave the store with their merchandise.

Sheri Gurock, who co-founded Magic Beans, reported that when the application was tested over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend last year, 42 percent of store shoppers who owned smartphones preferred this method of purchasing versus checking out at the store’s registers. Magic Beans offered customers a discount on their purchase as an incentive to try the application. Gurock added that 60 percent of those shoppers who scanned a product bar code ended up purchasing the item. She said users of the app appear to spend more than traditional shoppers.

According to Gurock, Magic Beans plans to add iPads to the mix so employees can help consumers complete in-store purchases. Gurock sees the day when the store will remove its traditional registers and have all in-store purchasing accomplished via mobile devices.

The Lowe’s and Magic Beans examples are entirely different in-store applications, but their commonality is mobile connectivity. In both cases, these retailers recognize that mobile-izing their operations will improve customer service and speed up the check-out process. Lowe’s is using iPhones to pay off its promotional promise to help customers execute their do-it-yourself projects. Magic Beans is using a mobile app to make it possible for parents with fussy kids to have a more enjoyable shopping experience by getting what they want quickly and avoiding long check-out lines, particularly at busy times.

We’ve already seen retailers offer consumers online ordering for store pick-up. This is now a common practice at Lowe’s, Target, Walmart, and other big box retailers. Some retailers also have in-store kiosks that connect consumers with their websites. Others, like CVS, offer in-store machines that issue personalized coupons when a customer scans their CVS card. These are early but important steps in the logical integration of the online and offline worlds. Now, with mobile technology, retailers are completing the loop by connecting consumers in their stores to online product review and ordering.

What mobile technology really offers retailers is empowerment. It empowers employees to spend more time helping customers instead of just taking orders. It empowers customers to take part in evaluating products and self-purchasing in a retail store, much as they do when they buy online.

It looks like on-the-street and online shopping are beginning to coalesce, thanks to mobile technology. It’s about time.

About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to Brandchannel.com, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

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