If Abercrombie wants to become a mobile brand, then it should really do it

Item-level RFID, geolocation, cross-retailer CRM and true associate integration are the initial elements.

mobile shopping
Pixabay (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Apparel chain Abercrombie & Fitch is signaling that it wants to stop being "brand-led" and to instead be "mobile-led," according to trade-show comments made by the chain's senior vice president of digital/e-commerce.

Assuming A&F exec Billy May was not misquoted, that comment — going from brand- to mobile-led — is baffling. That's sort of like Macy's or Walmart saying that it no longer wants to be about its products and services, but would rather be about customers coming in the south entrance. Mobile is just one of many channels that shoppers use to access a brand and the brand is the collection of reasons why they would want to engage in such access.

But May is then quoted as saying that he wants his chain to deliver a true mobile shopping experience, which is very different. “Shrinking desktop to mobile is the wrong approach,” May said. "It’s not enough to optimize for mobile. You have to transform for mobile."

That's a great sentiment. Nothing May specified, though, indicates that he's serious about delivering a true mobile experience. That raises the question: What would a true mobile shopping experience be like?

  • Item-Level RFID

To really make it work, a chain would want to start with as complete an item-level RFID deployment as possible. That’s the missing link. With full — or almost full — item-level RFID, the mobile device has the ability to deliver complete context to the shopper and to the retailer.

Beacons and aisle tags could signal the rough area of the shopper, but item-level RFID would allow the mobile device (whether it be phone, tablet, watch or other wearable) to understand what products the customer has picked up, how long he/she held it and when that garment was put back down.

  • Full multi-retailer CRM history

Retailers are scared to death about allowing competitors to have even a peek into their activities, understandably. But the tiny bit of damage that a rival could potentially do to you with that data — and it is potential, since most chains won't bother — is not even a rounding error compared with the boost in sales and margin that you could accomplish with that data.

Note: this is an industrywide lobbying effort, as opposed to something any chain could do on its own. But efforts to fight this — and MCX has been leading this effort — truly must stop.

When that customer is looking at those shirts, don't you want to be able to put that into the context of all of her other recent — and not so recent — purchases? Is this likely a gift for someone or for herself? How much has she historically spent? Is this the last piece for a full ensemble? This is all critical for the next phase, which is …

  • Associate Integration


Unlike Vegas, what starts in mobile can't stay in mobile. For brick-and-mortar chains to survive, they must leverage physical capabilities, and that absolutely includes sales associates on the floor.

Let's go back to this shopper. She is looking at shirts and in fact a specific and a very narrow range of colors and styles. (Thanks, item-level RFID.) What do you think is more effective? A text message offering x% off if she purchases in the next 10 minutes? Or an associate offering to help, coming pre-armed with the knowledge about what is in the backroom (related to the apparently desired purchase) and what is available for overnight shipment from e-commerce inventory? The associate can also offer on-the-fly discounts in connection with that specific merchandise. Do it well and you'll never have to worry about losing sales to Amazon again.

  • Geolocation

Assuming the associate integration isn't possible for this particular visit — during the holidays and other ultra-hectic periods, an associate may simply not be available for such one-on-one interactions with everybody — you do need to fine-tune your mobile-only interactions. For example, consider location-sensitive discounts. If the person has just arrived at the display area, let the customer sift through items before offering a special discount. It may not be needed. This is an instinct that your most experienced associates have, but that few mobile apps incorporate. With that item-level info, you can intelligently monitor what the shopper is doing and time a discount appropriately.

Also, I hate to suggest something devious, but don't go out of your way to make pricing obvious on signs. This will encourage customers to scan barcodes to get pricing. This is huge, since it gives you a hint as to the reason for an item being rejected. If an item is rejected because it's the wrong size or a color the shopper hates, even an 80% discount won't help.

Apparel shoppers tend to first look for style and then size and then color. If they don't like any of those elements, the sale for that item is dead. Usually, price is the fourth element examined. If the price is sought, there's a good reason to assume that the item has cleared those three other crucial hurdles. Hence, if a price request is made and the item is then put back on the shelf, an immediate text discount for that specific item within a limited time period would not only be effective, but it wouldn't be offered needlessly.

This might look like: initial browsing, do nothing; after five items are examined and rejected and price seems to be the reason, offer a decent discount. Here's where geolocation magic comes in. If you've offered 15% and your system sees the mobile device heading for the exit, immediately make a 20% offer.

This is doing little beyond what any good salesperson would do. Once the customer is about to leave, you need to make your best offer or lose the sale. Mobile devices, even without item-level RFID SKUs, can do this, but few programmers bother.

This is what it means to be a mobile-centric retailer. Anyone up to the task?

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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