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How mobile shopping will improve in the future

While the growth in mobile shopping was one of the big stories of 2012, continued success is likely to be driven as much by how retailers leverage emerging technologies to enhance the omnichannel shopping experience as by higher smartphone penetration levels.

Mobile’s ubiquity is one of the reasons for its success with consumers as a shopping tool, but the experience as it stands today lacks richness. However, retailers have an opportunity to leverage emerging mobile technologies to enhance the experience through touch, sight and smell, according to IBM.  

“Part of what we are trying to address is taking the best of the mobile experience, which is the ability to go remote and to be pervasive and add in some of the richness and the qualities that are important in human experiences,” said Robyn Schwartz, associate director of retail analytics at IBM Research.

“Our appetites and interests have matured to a point where the qualities that have become more important tend to be more emotional rather than functional,” she said.

“The ability to address those in a real and intuitive way enhances the whole experience.”

Immersive experiences
While mobile traffic and sales increased significantly during the recent holiday shopping season, mobile still only accounts for approximately 25 percent of traffic to ecommerce sites and 15 percent of purchases.

Going forward, the trend toward enhancing the in-store experience will focus on creating more immersive experiences that are less about technology and more about what a user’s goals are. Some of this is already in place with the use of augmented reality, location-based services and extreme personalization.

“The mobile shopping experience is an isolating experience,” Ms. Schwartz said. “It is definitely lacking in the richness visually that a bigger screen can bring or the in-store tactile experience.

“What it is rich is that it is already becoming more and more ubiquitous,” she said. “Today, I can be sitting on a bus and get my errands done or scan something and it gives you that immediate access that you need.”

The omnichannel shopper
Retailers will begin to look at their business in terms of an omnichannel shopping experience and the commingling of all the channels.

As a result of this omnichannel approach, mobile’s role in shopping will become more important as it acts as a conduit to shape retail experiences based on whatever information is stored on a user’s phone, such as favorite colors and textures as well as buying habits.

“What we think is going to happen with retail is this kind of unifying experience that happens across touch points in support of the customer’s end goal, whatever that may be,” Ms. Schwartz said.

“Mobile can be the conduit of our personal experiences, which are imbedded within a device that ends up shaping a personal experience in a physical store or an augmented store,” she said.

“The phone recedes as a pure physical piece of it but becomes much more important as a surrogate for the shopper to help define, shape and mold the experience.”

Emerging technologies
Based on social and market trends as well as emerging technologies, IBM predicts mobile will be able to better harness the sensations of touch, sight and smell to improve the mobile shopping experience within the next five years.

IBM is developing applications for retail that use tactile and infrared technologies to enable users to “feel” the texture and weave of a fabric or product by brushing their finger over the item’s image on a mobile phone screen.

“We believe that using pressure sensitive technologies through the phone that the phone becomes an intermediary for touch,” Ms. Schwartz said.

“This will enable an artisan in a far off country to use the phone to give a customer somewhere else the feel of the product she made,” she said.

Retailers will also be able to better harness of the visual data stored on mobile devices, such as the images shared on social networks, to make better recommendations for products consumers may want to buy.

Smartphones will also be able to detect smells and analyze them to determine if a user is coming down with a cold, for example, or determine whether someone is in an area with high pollution.

Other advances that could affect retailers include the ability for phones to interpret the sounds nearby a user and understand where they are or what is happening as well as the ability to experience flavor.

“Today, the phone is thought of as a diversion,” Ms. Schwartz said.

“What we are talking about is using the phone to enhance or create a more immersive experience, “she said. “To make people more aware of their present conditions or augmenting that using technologies that enhance the sensations of visual, touch and smell.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York