Mobility Blurs The Distinctions Among Retail Channels

Two weeks after returning from the Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas, I am still sifting through the notes and literature from that massive interactive look into retailing’s future. One revelation that became obvious fast is that interactive media and mobility are blurring the lines between the different retail channels we have grown up with. Consider the way everyone around you is using their smart phones for just about everything they do. The tools are empowering consumers so quickly that no retail entity, vending included, can respond fast enough.

I couldn’t help but wonder how vending operators will respond to this sea change in consumer behavior. I began calling operators, equipment suppliers and product suppliers and posed the question: What can a vending operator do to prepare his or her business for consumers who will be comparing prices using their smart phones, utilizing downloaded apps to find where to buy the products they want, and take advantage of discounts and promotions?

It was encouraging to learn that many people in our industry recognize change is coming fast. Many also realize that new skills are needed. This was encouraging; recognition of change is the first step to taking action.

One second generation vending operator I spoke with noted successful vending companies will be more “customer centric,” meaning they will create a positive consumer experience at the point of sale and post sale. I was impressed that a second generation vending operator used this term, “customer centric,” that was hot button topic at the Digital Signage Expo (DSE).

DSE sessions observed that the explosion of data mobility tools – smart phones among them – put the consumer at the center of every decision retailers are making. Data is being gathered to allow retailers to make better and faster decisions. Matt Pillar, editor in chief of Integrated Solutions for Retailers, noted in his March issue that mobile technology is forcing change from a channel mentality to a brand mentality.

These concepts aren’t revolutionary. During the 2005 National Automatic Merchandising Association annual meeting in Atlanta, Ga., vending consultant Brad Bachtelle, in his keynote address, urged vending operators to see themselves as retailers, not simply service providers. He criticized the traditional practice of choosing facings based on what was convenient for the operator and not the consumer.

Some vending operators have recognized the need to change from the old ways of doing things. Since 2005, a lot of operators have invested in tools that allow them to be more “customer centric.”

What’s changed the most is the impact that mobile payment technology has brought to all forms of retail. Mobile technology and interactive media have placed the consumer in the driver’ seat. Product manufacturers are recognizing this faster than retailers, and retailers are losing their traditional distinctions.