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This article was published in the April 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

Free phone charging brings customer traffic — and increased sales

What is the one thing that virtually every smartphone-carting customer craves most? A phone that’s fully charged, of course. So imagine the cosmic kudos scored by retailers who offer consumers the chance to charge their phones while shopping away the time it takes the phone to power up in a secure, see-though locker.

And why not? For bricks-and-mortar retailers, the attraction is clear. With more consumers shopping online and fewer consumers shopping at malls, it’s more critical than ever to attract those customers who are inside the mall. So it’s not inconceivable that someday most major retailers in America will offer something like ChargeItSpot.

At this point, retailers including Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Urban Outfitters and Under Armour have discovered the same thing: Free smartphone charging is a serious customer magnet.

 “Our shoppers expect this type of service,” says Mimi Crume Sterling, vice president of corporate communications at Neiman Marcus. Customers average 50 minutes inside Neiman Marcus stores while their phones are charging, and the phone-charging service is now available at Neiman Marcus stores in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Long Island, and at a Bergdorf Goodman location in New York City.

The company ultimately plans to expand the service to almost all of its stores nationwide, she says.

Meanwhile, ChargeItSpot is about to embark on a growth tear. It currently is working with 20 retailers in 18 states that have 200 charging stations. But before the end of 2016, the company plans to increase that number to at least 1,000, says Douglas Baldasare, CEO and founder of ChargeItSpot.

Cusomer using ChargeItSpot

Coaxing customers in

America is a nation of smartphone junkies. More than 90 percent of Americans own mobile phones, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center Internet Project Survey, and one-third of them describe their cellphone as “something they can’t imagine living without.”

“Our phones are constantly dying, yet we need our phones so desperately for everything we do,” says Baldasare. “When our phones run low we become anxious and disconnected.”

Each ChargeItSpot kiosk contains eight lockers where consumers can hook their phones up for charging. Customers create personal codes for lockers based on their own 10-digit mobile phone numbers.

The concept arose from a holiday weekend Baldasare spent with friends a few years ago. He was standing outside a store with three buddies, each of them with rapidly depleting mobile phone batteries.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why can’t I walk into this store and charge my phone?’” he says. Even as he was ruminating, he shot it down by noting that retailers were probably working on that very concept. That’s when one of his friends urged Baldasare to move forward with his idea. “They’re not going to do it themselves,” his friend said. “This is not their core business.”

That was the moment when Baldasare realized he needed to start the company that would bring the concept to market. “No one else was doing anything like this for retail. I knew that I had to.”

Few things are more relevant to mall retailers than figuring out new ways to coax consumers to spend more time in stores. ChargeItSpot appears to do that — and more. Shoppers who’ve used the charging service report staying in the store more than twice as long as they normally would have — and spending 29 percent more than they’d originally planned, according to an independent study for ChargeItSpot by research firm GfK.

In fact, each ChargeItSpot station generates roughly $80,000 in additional sales annually for the hosting store, the study found.

Each ChargeItSpot station generates roughly $80,000 in additional sales per unit annually.
GfK

An added service

But Neiman Marcus isn’t posting giant signs in the mall directing shoppers to its phone-charging kiosks. The retailer, which prides itself on customer service, prefers to be more subtle and let customers discover the kiosks themselves while in the store.

“This is not about getting customers into the store,” says Sterling. “Our brand DNA is about service, and to us, this is service.”

Increasingly, she says, the customer service has been technology-related at Neiman Marcus. “We are always looking for ways to surprise and delight customers,” she says. “The core values at Neiman Marcus all circle around service and exceeding customer expectations.”

Among those special services: valet parking, home delivery, same-day delivery, free alternations and special loyalty programs. And now, free phone charging.

For some regular customers, particularly those who like to dine at the restaurants inside most Neiman Marcus stores, the phone-charging stations are a natural stop before heading in for lunch, says Sterling. There is no ticking clock on the chargers, but it generally takes about 45 minutes to charge a phone.

Keep in mind, customers whose phones are charging become more focused shoppers, because their phones are no longer distracting them from fully observing all of the store’s offering.

Neiman Marcus Chicago store with ChargeItSpot

Customers whose phones are charging become more focused shoppers, because their phones are no longer distracting them.

‘Truly free’

The folks at ChargeItSpot have learned from shoppers, too.

For one thing, the physical placement of the charging kiosks is critical. While logic might seem to suggest the kiosks be placed near the front of the store, that hasn’t been at all successful.

“When customers walk in the door, they are blowing past the first 20 feet,” Baldasare says, “and not noticing things in the foyer.” Instead, he says, placement of the kiosks has been much more successful near the shoe section of Neiman Marcus and near the women’s restroom.

Kiosks typically feature the imagery of the hosting brand, store or mall; the 17-inch touchscreen also gives retailers a chance to directly speak to shoppers. For example, the Neiman Marcus kiosks might inform customers about a sale in the shoe department or a special lunch offering in the restaurant.

Neither company accesses data from customers’ phones. “It’s just one-way charging,” says Baldasare; some retailers do use the opportunity to ask shoppers to opt-in to receive emails on discounts, sales or special events.

Nor is ChargeItSpot limited to retailers. It’s been used by everyone from the Cleveland Cavaliers to Verizon Wireless, which recently offered the service to customers during the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif. The recent Grammy Awards had ChargeItSpot kiosks in use — hey, even rock stars need juice for their phones.

ChargeItSpot has a mobile app that will detect when a phone has less than 30 percent of battery life remaining — then direct that person to the nearest retailer with a kiosk.

ChargeItSpot also has a mobile app that will detect when a phone battery is low and direct the user to the nearest kiosk.

Neiman Marcus has been familiarizing all store associates with the locations of the kiosks, and training them how to use them. This way, Baldasare says, they can point inquiring customers toward the kiosks and help them charge their phones.

Even then, many potential customers are tough to convince that there’s no charge.

“When we first launched, people just couldn’t believe that it was free,” says Baldasare. “We had to be very, very clear.” So the company added a sticker that’s vinyl-wrapped around the kiosk that says, “Yes, it’s really, truly free.”

Retailers pay monthly fees based on the quantity of units and the length of time they keep them — typically for two years, he says. Included in that fee is everything from software upgrades to 24-hour servicing of the kiosks.

Not everyone is convinced of the service’s potential success: At least one retail consultant is skeptical of phone-charging kiosks.

“Most people are attached to their phones and would only leave them to charge if they had no choice,” says Steven Keith Platt, director and research fellow at Platt Retail Institute. “Ever hear of mobile shopping?”

Only time will tell who’s right. But in the early going, free phone charging is fully connecting retailers with the thing they crave most: shoppers.

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