Retail’s Future Requires a Shift from Mobile-First to Mobile-Only

By Dipesh Hinduja

If the last year has taught us anything, it's that change and disruption are constant.

Ed. Note: A version of this article originally appeared at  Retail TouchPoints.

Whether it's coping with a disruptive event or shifting buyer behavior, nimble retailers fare the best. The turmoil also proved that mobile technology enables needed flexibility in times of disruption and drives superior customer experiences that make retailers more competitive.

A lasting effect of the pandemic is that it has increased customer demand for more options and raised expectations for more personalized experiences. To meet these demands quickly and seamlessly, the technology behind the scenes matters. Retailers need to feel confident that they can offer their customers a quality experience and pivot promptly to new solutions, especially if there is a disruption in the market. As retailers plan for the future, getting and keeping the flexibility needed for retail success will require mobile-only strategies.

Moving From Mobile-First to Mobile-Only
From fashion to big box to grocery, retailers of all kinds have embraced a mobile-first mindset wholeheartedly. It's no surprise when you consider that  a study by VDC Research found that retail organizations were the most disrupted by COVID-19. Only 2.4 percent claimed to continue operating normally in the wake of the coronavirus, and their expected revenue changes compared to pre-COVID 2020 projects were -15.3 percent.

To survive during the pandemic, retailers quickly adapted to mobile, contactless payments, curbside pickup and different delivery options to serve customers during a unique period of disruption. Retailers aren't alone. The VDC study found an overwhelming 79 percent of organizations report that they have aggressively or slightly accelerated their investment in mobile technologies for frontline workers in response to the COVID-19 disruption.

But retailers have realized that while a mobile-first approach was helpful before the pandemic, we are now at a point where mobile-only is the way forward. Customer attitudes have changed. While many retailers were already offering some shipping and store pickup options before, the demand now is higher and  expected to stay popular post-pandemic. The VDC study found "almost 23 percent strongly agree and another 55.4 percent agree COVID-19 and the related disruption has transformed the way their business engages with their customers."

To enable efficient curbside pickup and store deliveries, arming employees with a multipurpose mobile device is critical. Mobile also allows store managers to complete more orders and do other tasks from wherever they are. Multipurpose mobile-only devices that incorporate accessories like printing and scanning also offer more advantages like cost effectiveness, improved security and better associate experiences. Mobile technology isn't a "nice-to-have," it's a "must-have."

What's Next?
As organizations look for digital transformation opportunities to improve customer experiences and increase efficiency, mobile technology can enhance pickup and delivery workflows.

  • Location, Location, Location: Knowing that a curbside customer is pulling into the parking lot means a retailer can provide a quicker response, so location and location awareness make a difference in customer experience. Some retailers have built a manual function into their apps that let customers alert the store when they're on their way and when they've arrived. Others are using location tracking to automate that function. More retailers should look into building it into their loyalty apps and store systems.
  • Revamped Delivery Strategies: The preference for store delivery and curbside pickup options is turning stores into distribution centers. Mobile technology will continue to power this moving forward from an operational and experience perspective. Retailers that could pivot to these changes in consumer behavior remained competitive and thrived during the pandemic. As retailers plan for the future, they will expand their physical footprints and design more capabilities to deliver from stores. Brick-and-mortar stores will need to become distribution networks similar to Amazon, Uber Eats, and DoorDash to stay viable. These distribution models rely on mobile technology to get shipments out to consumers efficiently and accurately.
  • More Efficient Supply Chains: The supply chain—always critical to retail success—must undergo digital transformation to provide the speed and visibility required in an omnichannel environment. Stores that act as regional delivery centers must have up-to-the-second knowledge of inventory, location, packing and transportation status. Buy online, pick up at store systems need to tell customers what product is currently on the shelves and what they can get, and when. Mobile technology is key to both.

Developing a Mobile Blueprint for Long-Term Success
Retailers that embraced mobile-first are the same ones that are moving to a mobile-only approach. Their success is primarily due to having a mobile blueprint that they can repeatedly leverage for new use cases. It allows them to be prepared to add new capabilities reliably by following a consistent and repeatable framework. They feel more comfortable implementing new technology because they're following a process they have seen succeed multiple times. With a mobile blueprint, retailers can stay on budget and adapt to new trends.

Retailers need to consider the full lifecycle and management of mobile technology when building a mobile blueprint. The focus should be on bringing all the pieces together, including the physical store blueprint, infrastructure, management, connectivity and end-user experience. As devices and use cases change, everything needs to be able to evolve together. While your blueprint should be broad enough to take these elements into account, it shouldn't be so wide that it tries to be all things to everyone. It's also important to consider the nature of your workforce. Rather than being the first to deploy new technology, think about the long-term purpose it has in your business.

Lastly, success depends on introducing any new mobile technology effectively to employees, vendors, and partners. When they can see the benefits, they'll buy in and use it. Retail has seen incredible disruption, but technology can help. Building a mobile blueprint and using it as a guide through digital transformation is the path to winning.

Dipesh Hinduja is the mobile solution architect director of  Stratix and its senior IT manager and technical architect, specializing in maturing teams and businesses that operate in rapid-change technologies.