Financial Data
Updated 29 Feb 2020

Is the smartphone making it more challenging to be a retailer?

With an all-knowing device in the palm of their hands, consumers are becoming more discerning than ever when it comes to how they spend their money.

27 April 2018  Share  0 comments  Print

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Understanding what customers want and delivering that want to them in today’s technology-fuelled world is becoming increasingly complex. In the past (pre-Internet, pre-smartphone, pre-Google-everything world), people shopped traditionally. What you sold to them was what they bought, and they had no option to quickly look at what’s on sale online or in another mall or area. 

Today, studies show that customers are increasingly using smartphones for research:

“In 2016, nearly 70% of South Africans browsed the Internet through their mobile phones. 43% of them used their devices to make online purchases. – Effective Measure South Africa Mobile Report 2017

What does this mean for you as a medium-sized retailer? How do you find out what is driving success in the sector and how to potentially respond?

Related: 6 Trends and the future of South African retail

Here’s what you can expect to make retail business more challenging in the years to come, thanks to the smartphone, and how to combat it:

1. The rise of omni-channel shopping destinations 

“What makes many retailers anxious is not the market share of online channels, but the influence digital channels wield over consumer shopping decisions,” says Deloitte.

Advancement of technology and consumer preferences have ushered in transformation in retail operations at a more accelerated rate. People want to shop from a variety of platforms and this gives you the opportunity to convert 75% of consumers who shop via computers and 59% of smartphone users into your customers.

2. Online reputation can prove more challenging to manage

Online -reputation

All it takes is one ‘harmless’ post, video or comment from a customer, staff member or management to trigger a situation that could cause a significant impact on your sales or customer perspective. It’s advised to prepare for the possibility of an unexpected brand protection situation - especially in the age of social media. 

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of consumers, and any negative brand imagery might hurt your reputation. You could consider hiring a social media manager in-house or use an agency to respond to both positive and negative online reactions. 

Related: Insider insights on the changing face of retail in South Africa

Retail success requires a tactical approach

If you still consider the hard sell a powerful tool in your sales arsenal, it’s advised to rethink this approach in 2018, and beyond. Remember that consumers have already discovered a significant amount of information on your products before you advertise it to them.

Their smartphones have given them all the power to make more informed purchases. Why not consider a subtle approach to counter their smartphone-fuelled, researched and planned buying patterns that can often rival your own salespeople’s knowledge? 

SEO-driven content, for example, on your website can offer customers information on products. Well-written content could help ensure you pop up on page 1 or 2 of a customer’s phone when they search before they shop.

How retailers are using smartphones to engage shoppers 

Smartphones are enabling companies to become more service-oriented, by allowing them to offer facilities consumers want. Click-and-collect, pick-up returns and product personalisation, tailoring and alterations. American retail chain, Nordstrom offers these services even for non-Nordstrom products. People simply use the Nordstrom app to make a booking for a service from the shop. 

Nike’s new flagship store, launching in early 2019 on New York’s Fifth Avenue, will also be leveraging the smartphone to boost sales and engagement. 

Related: The evolving retail sector opens up entrepreneurship opportunities

The shop has a dedicated floor where no products are on sale. Instead members of the NikePlus customer club will be invited to experience exceptional levels of service along with access to “unique products, experiences and customisation opportunities”, according to Nike. People can use the Nike app to find more information on the products they see in the store.


Smartphone use is expected increase in the years to come. As more generations of shoppers use these devices, they’re going to be empowered to make different purchase decisions than they did prior to having a smartphone. It’s advised to look at ways to bring the smartphone into your business; an app, mobi-responsive site, search engine optimisation.

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