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Sidewalk sales were a staple of retail in the 1970s and ’80s. Seemingly each Saturday, merchants would strategically place select merchandise on tables outside their doors to catch the eye of passing consumers and grab some extra sales. The sidewalk was about enhancing the buying experience for customers and making it convenient for them to buy.

Sidewalk sales also saw merchants lugging bulky point-of-sale systems and cash registers outside, or going back into the store to complete sales. Sidewalk sales may never quite return to their heyday — but if they do, the on-rushing mobile retail revolution will make them a snap.

“Mobility lets retailers work more intimately with customers through the buying experience and respond more quickly to either service issues or sales opportunities,” says Michael English, executive director of product development for Heartland Payment Systems, which offers a solution enabling merchants to swipe and accept card payments through their smartphones.

Mobile technology, in effect, allows the customer to be better served because store personnel “literally become a walking point-of-sale system,” English says.

Missed revenue
W ith consumers now using mobile devices in ubiquitous ways, mobile solution providers are developing technologies to extend the retail buying experience.

Technology market research firm ABI Research forecasts that retail technology spending will grow from $14.8 billion in 2009 to nearly $21 billion in 2014. Along with ensuring more secure systems for their POS deployments, retailers are investing in technology to enhance the customer experience, drive customer loyalty, reduce costs and manage inventory, according to ABI Research.

The development of portable, encrypted point-of-sale readers (including those used via smartphones) creates the opportunity for store associates to improve the buying experience by serving customers anywhere in the store. Additionally, “tap and go” payment systems are being developed to accept customer payments directly from credit, debit and gift card data stored securely in the customer’s personal mobile device.

“During busy times, people will put merchandise down and leave the store when they have to stand around to get waited on,” English says. “The merchant misses a revenue opportunity, and that can leave a negative impression for the consumer.”

In September, Lowe’s announced plans to deploy 42,000 iPhone 4S devices in its stores nationwide — a year after chief rival The Home Depot made a large investment in a handheld POS system. Competition aside, Lowe’s is aiming to keep pace with its customers’ technology expectations by enhancing their experience in its stores, in large part replicating a social media environment. The rollout will provide in-store Wi-Fi for shoppers, and additional bandwidth will let customers store details about their purchases — receipts, user’s manuals, service warranties — on the system. Store personnel will be able to respond to customer inquiries via text message and e-mail.

Visible integration
In a September report, ABI Research notes that social networking will soon become a predominantly mobile activity. The number of people accessing social networks from mobile phones will exceed 550 million worldwide by the end of 2011, the report says, and will triple to more than 1.7 billion by the end of 2016.

Kris Hiiemaa, CEO of ERPLY, a provider of cloud-based mobile, laptop and desktop POS and retail inventory management solutions, says applications that connect to the point-of-sale will do the most to enhance the customer experience. “It must be integrated, it must be really visible, it must come from point-of-sale and it must end in point-of-sale,” Hiiemaa says.

Hooking the ’Horns on Mobile Purchasing
When diehard fans of the University of Texas Longhorns see the image of the branded orange “snuggie” in resplendent living color on their smartphones, they’re going to want to buy it right then and there. That’s what University Co-op, a retailer of distinctive University of Texas merchandise, is counting on.

University Co-op is banking that its mobile-optimized e-commerce site will extend the in-store buying experience for its loyal customer base of students, faculty, parents, fans, alumni and followers in Austin and beyond.

“We feel that we need to be ahead of the curve or get as close to being ahead of the curve as possible,” says vice president of marketing Brian Jewell.

The app-centric platform, built on technology from Austin-based Digby, is designed to deliver a branded retail experience for mobile consumers no matter where they are, including in the store.

Key to the platform, Jewell says, is that it unifies multiple channels for in-store, e-commerce and catalog sales. For instance, the “live catalog” feature allows University Co-op customers to receive real-time information on product availability, pricing, specials and new arrivals. Other features include a “social interaction” function for sharing input on products via Facebook and Twitter.

Once customers download the app to their smartphones, the platform’s “push” feature begins to alert them about specials, events and promotions.

“We had to do [m-commerce] sooner rather than later, because our customer doesn’t just buy from us — they buy from Walmart, Target, Bergdorf Goodman,” Jewell says. “Our challenge and opportunity were to meet the [standard] of what they experience from everybody else that they buy from.”

JoS A. Bank Hears Customers’ Wishes
JoS A. Bank Clothiers understands that listening to customers should never amount to lip service – and a large segment of its customer base consists of heavy technology users.

“We had assumed that all of our customers had Blackberries and they only used them for e-mail,” says vice president of e-commerce Pete Zophy. “But they basically told us they wanted to be able to find our stores on their phones. That’s when we knew we needed to optimize our [e-commerce] site for mobile, and build a mobile app as well.”

The next step in JoS A. Bank’s mobile strategy — set to launch in time for the holiday selling season — is a checkout function that will allow customers to purchase directly from their devices.

“Our philosophy is we want to be there for our customers, no matter where they want to purchase,” Zophy says. “Actually, a customer who purchases from us in more than one channel is more valuable.”

The retail industry is grappling with various mobile strategies, but Zophy says an important first step was to gain a presence and begin to satisfy its mobile customers. The chain partnered with 5th Finger to fulfill optimization through using the RedShop Mobile platform, which seeks to reinforce existing customer behavior rather than solely create new ways to shop and buy.

Through the site, customers can find any JoS A. Bank location and view store hours, maps and directions. They can also download a free “Shopping Companion” mobile app and receive personalized promotional offers, view clothing ensembles and access consumer education information.

Quirky about Mobile — and Everything Else
Moosejaw Mountaineering enjoys a reputation for being a little unothodox when it comes to meeting the retail needs of its affluent and technology-savvy customer base. A recent “free beer” promotion offered customers a Moosejaw gift card if they forwarded a copy of their bar tab.

“We want to always be notable with everything we do in terms of our marketing,” says Eoin Comerford, vice president of marketing for the outdoor retailer. “It is not enough for us to stand pat or do what everyone else does.”

Key for Moosejaw is being channel “agnostic”: Customers get the same experience from mobile as from bricks-and-mortar, call centers or e-commerce, Comerford says.

Moosejaw doesn’t redirect mobile customers to a separate site; instead, the site senses the type of device being used and formats the page to fit the screen.

“We have a very strong belief that there is this blurring of channels and that the consumer doesn’t think in terms of retail channels or multi-channels,” Comerford says. “That’s a construct of the retail industry. Consumers just want to be able to buy stuff from you whenever they want, however they want.”

Working with cross-channel technology partner CrossView, Moosejaw is constantly seeking opportunities to present an entertaining shopping experience — no matter how or through what channel customers arrive.

“All of those touchpoints hit the same production database … in real time, and all of the inventory is in sync,” Comerford says.