Why Nobody is Really Ready for Mobile Commerce

Image of online shopping

Give me that old time rock-n-roll. If you are old enough for that phrase to instantly conjure up a matching melody and beat, then the sweet memory of being able to buy and play an LP (or CD even) is probably still quite visceral in your mind. Today, of course, most Baby Boomers are relatively comfortable with buying or streaming digital songs. After all, unless they are into silence, they learned to download music onto a digital device, not to mention master searching apps such as Apple’s iTunes that replaced their record players.

Still, unlike most Millennials — who probably have never even heard a non-digital version of Bob Seger — the majority of Boomers and Gen-Xers had to be coerced into making the switch to digital music. And more coercion will be required before digital commerce reaches its full potential, according to the most recent consumer sentiment study on mobile usage at U.S.-based consultant firm Stored Value Solutions (SVS), where I serve as Head of Technology and Innovation.

While helping retailers implement physical and digital gift card programs last year, we noticed an emerging theme concerning consumer attitudes toward mobile commerce. Simply put, the numbers suggest that the U.S. population on the whole isn’t tremendously comfortable with going digital across the lifecycle of the product. And unfortunately, the alternative — silence — isn’t sustainable for a commerce-driven economy.

Consider this: In the first quarter of 2015 alone, Apple sold 61.2 million iPhones. On January 1, the company posted record App Store sales as consumers used these devices to spend more than US$144 million on purchases, beating the former daily record set just a week earlier on Christmas Day. But that does not mean people are actually using their smartphones for the entire range of functions that these devices can perform. And if truth be told, when it comes to mobile app usage, the related growth stats are misleading because they are percentages, not hard numbers, and actually reflect growth from a relatively low base.

Looking at the bigger picture, we have found that there is a reluctance on the part of the average consumer to entrust their payment information, as well as the full journey of transacting from merchandise selection to delivery, to the digital ether. As things stand, more than 60 per cent of Americans have a smartphone, but more than 50 per cent of the consumers we surveyed still prefer to make purchases in a bricks-and-mortar store. Only 14 per cent said they preferred to shop online.

Our study further showed:

  • Men of all ages are more comfortable buying digital than women
  • Less than 10 per cent of consumers aged 36 to 65 buy digital when they can buy “analog” in a store
  • Only 25 per cent of Millennials buy in a digital format when given the choice

On the retailer side, there’s definitely pressure on businesses to get with the digital program. An online pop-up ad that Adobe runs enjoins, “Your office is as mobile as you are.” But while the headlines suggest retailers are running as fast as they can in the digital race, the reality is quite different. Significant resistance exists. Keep in mind that going digital involves making a serious financial outlay, not to mention decisions about what platforms to bet the budget on. There is also a significant outlay of time and money required to train employees on how to properly use and maintain the new systems and equipment.

And let’s not forget the hiccups experienced by early adopters. Our consumer survey uncovered some of the many interface problems that retailers are having with going digital. Customers are already frustrated when they must enter a physical store to complete a transaction that they attempted to perform digitally. And this frustration grows quickly when store employees don’t know what to do or scanners fail to work or codes need to be entered manually. Hesitation and reluctance, not to mention suspicion, is often the result, whenever consumers are asked to hand over their phones so codes can be scanned or read behind the counter by cashiers or other service staff, such as a waiter or waitress. Privacy concerns, such as the potential for receiving unsolicited correspondence once one’s contact information has been shared, also limit the appeal of going digital. If consumers worry about receiving digital offers before they’ve even completed a transaction, the merchant case for going digital is clearly weakened.

To date, of course, much of the push to get retailers to invest in digital offerings has hinged on the value associated with compiling customer spending data. But it is no secret that most retailers don’t know what to do with this data once it is collected.

Our survey findings, along with countless similar reviews, not to mention social media feedback, point to the fact that mobile commerce has a long way to go. As things stand, no matter how slick or sophisticated the technology deployed, most people simply don’t know how to make it worthwhile — and this isn’t just true on the retail side of the transaction. Simply put, consumers on average still just don’t know enough about the capabilities of the incredible devices that they carry around.

The average smartphone offers more computing power than that deployed on Apollo space missions. The related storage and security capabilities far outweigh any other transactional modes, from magstripe credit cards to hard currency.  And yet, they are still primarily used to communicate and play games. Returning to our music analogy, it’s as if 60 per cent of the population owns a Stradivarius violin, but they can only use this incredibly sophisticated musical device to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” or the “Alphabet” song (music fun fact: all three songs share the same tune based on the same seven notes used in the same order).

The above argument isn’t meant to diminish the optimism that surrounds digital transactions. A real opportunity exists for retailers to get close to their customers in a whole new way. But patience will be required as consumers take time to adapt. And businesses need to take advantage of the relatively slow adoption of digital transactions to first really learn the new technology that they are deploying, and then use this expertise to serve their customers by helping them learn how to use their devices in amazing new ways — while gaining more trust in their transactions rather than increased frustrations.