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Do You "mTail?"

January 7, 2010

My smart phone (I don’t want to mention a product name but it rhymes with “happle itone”) has an app on it that can scan bar codes and then search the web to identify the product. It also displays the price of that item from several web sites and even from brick and mortar stores in my neighborhood. These prices are sorted from cheapest to most expensive. It’s pretty neat and I have used it several times to do price comparisons and to get additional product information before making a purchase.


According to a recent article I read, what I did is being done so often, it has been given a name: “mTailing,” short for “mobile retailing.” In fact, the article goes on to say that one out of five people with smart phones say they intend to use the features of their phones to help them shop. By that, they mean locate stores, find products, and/or find the best price. Of those people, one in four said they plan to purchase products using their smart phone.


In other words, 5% of shoppers with smart phones plan to use their smart phone to buy things. That’s not astounding until you consider that there are well over 20 million smart phones in the United States alone, that means at least 1,000,000 shoppers plan to bypass stores and their computers to buy things this year. This is just the start of a trend that can only get bigger, just like shopping on the Internet has grown since the end of the last century.


While it is true that smart phone apps make “mTailing” possible, some apps are pure advertising and may or may not contribute to actual sales. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Who is going to download an ad to their smart phone? No one wants to watch ads. In fact, we use TIVO just to be able to skip the commercials.” Under normal circumstances, I would agree with you; yet, I did exactly that without really knowing it. Let me explain. Last year I was in the market for a new watch. I used the Internet and brick and mortar stores to zero in on the watch I wanted. The manufacturer of the watch I eventually purchased has a web site. One day, while visiting it, I noticed they had a free app for my smart phone. I thought it might allow me to compare all of their watches or at least see pictures of all of their watches in their actual size. Sounded good; so, I downloaded it.


Imagine my disappointment when I opened the app to find out it was a commercial for one (and only one) of their new watches. As disappointed as I was, I was also a little frightened because they were clever enough that I wanted to put their commercial on my smart phone. Not only did I put the ad on my phone, I spent five minutes of my time watching it before I realized what it was. Sneaky, but if you don’t think this is where brand advertising is going, just search a smart phone app store for Ralph Lauren, Wal-Mart, or Target and you might change your mind.


But “mTailing” is more than the obvious ability to get pricing, product information, and dealer info. It also includes Twitter and Facebook. Now, I don’t Twitter or Facebook (I’m sure my advanced placement high school English teacher is spinning in her grave as I make the noun “Facebook” into an ersatz verb) but this morning I got an invitation from Janus et Cie to go to their Facebook page and/or follow their Tweets. I have been thinking how these sites could increase my sales for several months. To be honest with you, I haven’t figured out how they can add value to my store’s brand. But when Janus et Cie sent me their invite, I was immediately saw the advantages of being able to follow a manufacturer on Facebook or Twitter.


It would be useful to get the occasional Tweet from a manufacturer announcing closeouts, price changes, minor product introductions, and other things that might get lost on their normal large web site. If these Tweets lead me to their Facebook page, I might even be tempted to get a Facebook account just to be able to follow what they are saying. As long as the Tweets and Friending Invitation don’t get out of control, this would be useful to me.


So, look at your phone again. Perhaps it looks a little different that it did when you started reading this blog. Mine looks like a miniature shopping cart, customer information booth, and discount coupon resource all small enough to fit in my pocket. I think it will become the most important shopping tool any of us have by the beginning of the next decade! Who among us is ready for that?


Yours in confused retailing, Bruce