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Here’s What the Smartphone Is and Isn’t Good for When Shopping

As much as consumers love to use their phones when shopping, a new survey reveals the ways these devices can help and how they can hinder.

“Smartphones are an instrumental part of the shopping journey and have become a pseudo-salesperson for the consumer,” said Farla Efros, president of HRC, the retail advisory that surveyed 800 millennials and members of Gen Z. (Note that HRC defines millennials as ages 18-41, in contrast with the fairly standard age range of 18-37.)

An overwhelming 83 percent of consumers use their phones at some point during the in-store shopping trip, preferring it to the experience of dealing with a flesh-and-blood sales associate, HRC found. There could be any number of reasons why shoppers dodge the face-to-face experience in a store. Maybe they don’t think the staffer is properly trained to handle their query, or perhaps they think the information they look up online is more reliable and comprehensive. And, of course, some customers just want to be left alone to “self-service” their browsing journey.

“Retailers must understand the connections shoppers have to their mobile devices and merge offline and online channels to create a seamless experience in-store,” Efros said.

Despite the smartphone’s starring role in the retail experience, HRC discovered the ever-present device is better suited to some applications than others. The findings shouldn’t come as much of a surprise by now: Shoppers who use their phones in-store are snapping pics (51 percent) to get feedback from their social network and looking up coupons or competitors’ prices (59 percent). They’re also checking product reviews (47 percent) and get even more product info than what’s available on shelves, tags and racks (46 percent).

But that love for their phones comes to a screeching halt, according to HRC, when it comes to checking out and paying for purchases. Though frictionless self-checkout is gaining momentum, as evidenced by Amazon Go and a small cadre of its competitors, a number of shoppers can’t shake the feeling they’re inadvertently stealing when their purchase experience doesn’t involve a human cashier or a traditional self-checkout station, Walmart and Target-style. This could be why nearly three quarters (72 percent) of survey takers told HRC they still seek out an associate when it’s time to pay.

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Shoppers also noted a preference for convenience, responding positively to features that help them control their store experience before they even walk through the retailer’s doors. People shopping for clothing and shoes like the ability to buy items online for in-store pick-up (76 percent), perhaps because they can guarantee access to those items while also having the option to try them on in a fitting room and easily return whatever doesn’t work out. Another 67 percent indicated an interest in reserving products through a store’s website for in-store try-on and purchase.

“Most shoppers surveyed shared that dressing room technology, in-store events and personal shoppers were not considered as valuable as technology that enables them to buy when and how they like,” HRC said.

Store owners, Efros added, must prioritize the things that add value to the customer’s journey. “By giving shoppers access to mobile offers, providing free Wi-Fi and empowering sales associates with smartphones or tablets to provide relevant product information, retailers can earn back customer loyalty and provide an intuitive, enjoyable store experience.”