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Customer experience during Hurricane Sandy could speed or slow mcommerce adoption

With millions of consumers in Northeast United States on track to lose power as a result of Hurricane Sandy, they are likely to resort to their mobile devices to access important weather and news information. The big question is, will they also take the time to shop via their mobile devices?

Hurricane Sandy is not only affecting consumers, but retailers as well. And with a proliferation of smartphones and tablets hitting the market, it is no surprise that consumers are using their mobile devices to make purchases while holed up at home.

“I think this is unprecedented in terms of its potential impact on mobile performance,” said Daniel C. Berkowitz, senior director of corporate communications at Keynote Systems Inc., San Mateo, CA.  “It depends on what happens with the carrier networks and if they go down.

“Lots of people are clamoring for information – what happens if some of the networks start having problems and if consumers are out of power and can’t get information from their TVs and from mobile sites,” he said. “For the sites that are prepared well, this could be a shopping event for them. People are home right now, they are watching TV or are on their desktop computer.

“Then what happens when the power goes down – are people going to shop on their mobile device during a hurricane? I don’t think so.”

Affect on retail
Clearly, retailers have been highly impacted by Hurricane Sandy, especially since a huge number had to close their locations across the Eastern Seaboard.

With the holiday season coming up and handset and tablet use growing by the minute, there is no doubt that consumers are shopping on mobile.

Having a mobile presence is essential – and having one during disastrous events such as hurricanes is becoming a necessity.

Not only are consumers turning to their smartphones to view the latest news and weather information, but many are also using their devices to make purchases.

Take tablets, for example.

This past year, tablets have been deemed “the shopping couch experience.”

A majority of consumers use their tablet devices to make purchases when they are at home in the evening on their couch.

Couch potatoes
With the hurricane occurring, more consumers will be at home on their couches, possibly comparison-shopping or going to their favorite mobile sites and apps.

Hurricane Sandy is a potentially devastating storm and without trying to minimize the seriousness of its effects, it is also an opportunity for retailers to provide much needed assistance in helping shoppers find the supplies they need.

During large storms, retailers can use paid search on mobile to drive in-store visits by providing hyper-geotarged product listing ads based on in-store inventory levels, according to the iProspect blog. However, a search by iProspect for “Hurricane Sandy” and more specific queries turned up no retailers.

“Storms like this offer retailers an opportunity to drive in-store visits from desktop or mobile digital marketing campaigns,” said Casey Fitzsimmons, client services director at iProspect, in the blog post.

“As my family prepared, I would have appreciated hyper-geotargeted product listing ads (PLAs) based on in-store inventory levels, so I could have easily found the closest CVS with C batteries, bottled water and other needs,” he said. “Instead, I had to call as we drove around the city, taking up employees’ valuable time and our valuable gas.”

Paid search campaign on mobile can help consumers find the closest store with C batteries, bottled water and other necessities.

The ability to run these types of last-minute, reactionary campaigns requires some preparation, including having inventory feeds linked up to PPC campaigns.

Addittonally, retailers can offer geotargeting based on store locations, making sure to pay attention to the granularity of inventory feeds.

It is also important to have device targeting in place so the message provided to a mobile searcher is different than a desktop searcher.

It is also important  to provide mobile-optimized landing pages with custom content speaking to hurricane preparedness.

Mobile adoption
According to Larry Freed, president/CEO of ForeSee, Ann Arbor, MI, Hurricane Sandy might not have a strong correlation to mobile holiday sales.

For some big retailers, including supermarkets and home-improvement stores, marketers already have solid disaster plans in place to move inventory and adjust for a wave of sales leading up to a natural disaster.

Depending on the amount of damage that is done, retailers could also expect to see smaller holiday shopping budgets if consumers have to spend more fixing up their homes, per Mr. Freed.

Additionally, retailers that ship from the East Coast will be challenged in communicating with consumers across the country who still expect for orders to be delivered.

Primarily, Mr. Freed sees mobile as being used as an information-gathering and customer-information tool.

“There is a huge opportunity in the home to use mobile as a communication device,” Mr. Freed said.

Holiday boost
Hurricane Sandy could also give holiday sales an early boost.

While consumers are at home and most likely interacting with content on television, online, print and mobile, the storm puts marketers in a unique position to drive sales.

More importantly, finding a way to combine all of these marketing mediums could be effective for brands to gain an edge over competitors at the start of the holiday shopping season.

Additionally, marketers can use mobile to quickly push out offers.

In particular, SMS can be effective for reaching the widest group of users with time-sensitive messages.

For instance, Macy’s sent an SMS message to users yesterday that encouraged consumers to get a jump-start on their holiday shopping with a message that included a link to Macy’s Gift Guide section on the company’s Web site.

From there, consumers could browse gift items and create wish lists.

“Assuming that the systems work and stay up, the customer experience that a user has with mobile could be impacted negatively or could cause a positive experience that speeds up adoption,” Mr. Freed said.