Social Networks, Mobile Phones, and the Future of Shopping

Sony, 1-800-Flowers, Starbucks, and Others: Social Networks, Mobile Phones, and the Future of Shopping A number of major retailers have been driven into bankruptcy protection…

Sony, 1-800-Flowers, Starbucks, and Others: Social Networks, Mobile Phones, and the Future of Shopping

A number of major retailers have been driven into bankruptcy protection during this recession, including RedEnvelope and Eddie Bauer, or gone out of business altogether, like Circuit City. Blockbuster, Virgin Megastores, and many more have closed stores. Survivors, suffering deflated profits and slow sales, warn of a bleak future. But smart retailers are going where it’s warm: the hot little hands of cellphone- and laptop-toting consumers who want to shop right now, wherever they happen to be sipping their lattes or watching their kids’ soccer games. Technology-backed projects to increase revenue include mobile e-commerce, coupons by text message, and even storefronts on social networks. As enablers of these projects, CIOs are moving ever closer to the customer. “Out of recession develops one picture—finally—of what true business-IT alignment looks like,” says Drew Martin, CIO of Sony Electronics. “IT is becoming part of the product offerings.” Whether that’s hotel kiosks, mobile banking, hospital patient portals, or retail, CIOs are getting their IT groups to the front line in the competition for consumer dollars. When a customer logs on to his new Sony e-book reader, for example, the device automatically connects him to his existing customer profile, from which he can start buying e-books. This feature is available thanks to Martin’s efforts to connect product development with Sony’s internal customer relationship management system. As exciting as it is to live on the progressive edge of the CIO profession, though, it’s a new world to navigate at a time when wrong moves can severely hurt a company. “The challenge is that now you’re entering into the revenue space,”

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Martin says. “You need to commit to delivering your part of what needs to be delivered.” “Web sites and e-mail—that’s just too many steps now,” says Brett Michalak, CIO with Tickets.com , which sells tickets to games, concerts, and other events, as well as having its own ticketing technology. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube take e-mail out of the equation, putting offers in front of customers on sites they already visit. Dell, JetBlue, Whole Foods, and other big brands have pounced on Twitter as a marketing and promotion tool, tweeting special deals to followers. Dell, for example, attributes more than $2 million in sales to its 14 Twitter accounts that promote offers to 1.4 million followers. (“15 percent off any Dell Outlet Inspiron laptop. Enter code at checkout . . .”) Sony is using Twitter, among other social networking sites, to hype the SonyReader. A recent tweet included a link to a page at Sony’s site comparing the product favorably to Amazon’s Kindle. “You can’t build a site and expect people to come. We are on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to go out and get them,” Martin says. 1-800-Flowers intends to find out whether social networkers are also social shoppers. In July 2009, the $714-million flower delivery company launched the first Facebook storefront. Collectively, Facebook’s 300 million active members spend eight billion minutes per day on the site, according to the company. An Experian survey found that dwell time for an adult visiting a social network is 19 minutes and 32 seconds. Meanwhile, 35 percent of adults who had been on a social network in the past month had also bought something online in that time period, the survey found—a ripe demographic. “Still, there’s a lot to do on Facebook, so any shopping has to be fast,” says Vibhav Prasad, vice president of Web marketing and merchandising at 1-800-Flowers. The company’s Facebook store, therefore, offers only 10 percent to 15 percent of the several hundred bouquets available from the main 1-800-Flowers Web site, and the checkout process has been pared down. No suggestions to buy related products pop up, for example, and four special-occasion tabs span the top of the page, instead of the eight on the main site. “It’s a fairly impulsive purchase in this channel,” Prasad says. “As simple and as quick as we can make it, the more effective we’ll be.” Impulsiveness is key. Every time Facebook members log in, they see updates about who among their friends is having a birthday. Prasad wants those regular reminders to spark flower buys. Going social was “a logical extension” for 1-800-Flowers, which was one of the first retailers to put up an e-commerce site in the early 1990s, notes Kevin Ranford, director of Web marketing. “It comes from listening to customers and responding to the channels in which they’re interacting,” Ranford says. Facebook users spend most of their time looking at their own home pages. They read their news feed—a display of their friends’ status updates, quizzes taken, notes posted, and games played. So, 1-800-Flowers is planning a way into the news feed. When a fan fills out a wish list to indicate which flowers she’d like to receive, notification goes into the feeds of her friends. Carol logs on to Facebook, sees that Alice has a birthday on Thursday and wishes for the “Pleasantly Pink” bouquet. Ding! Carol clicks over to the 1-800-Flowers store and $29.99-plus-shipping later, takes care of that gift without ever leaving Facebook. “We think people will do it because social networking is all about you expressing your interests and your friends responding,” says Wade Gerten, CEO of Alvenda, the Minneapolis software developer that built the Facebook store for 1-800-Flowers. “Shopping online can be social again, as it was in person.” People lose their credit cards and forget their wallets. But cell phones? There is perhaps no combination of vices so bursting with commercial promise than that of cell phone-pluscaffeine. Starbucks is there. In September 2009, the $9.8 billion coffee chain began testing a system to let customers pay using their iPhones or iTouch devices. They download the Starbucks Card Mobile App and type in the number of their Starbucks loyalty card, preloaded with spending money. A 2-D bar code appears that cashiers can scan. Royal Oak Music Theatre, a Michigan music and comedy venue that has featured such acts as Train and Bob Saget, started mobile ticketing three years ago and has adjusted its marketing to cover for finicky technology. Anyone who’s done self-checkout at the supermarket knows that scanning takes a special, knowing touch. Still, scanning bar codes on the screens of mobile devices often requires extra wiggling of the phone and slanting it at different angles. It’s slower than scanning paper tickets. To avoid ticking off patrons lined up to run in and grab general-admission floor spots, Royal Oak created a separate VIP entrance for the mobile customers. There, staff use the newer model scanners required for reading mobile bar codes, and it’s not so apparent that the scanning takes longer, says Diana Williams, box office manager. Mobile customers are also allowed to get into the theater a few minutes before traditional customers, which encourages more people to buy their tickets by cell phone, she says. That’s cheaper for the theater than handling paper tickets; saving money and hassle time is Williams’ goal. But it also positions the theater well for collecting future revenue. “Mobile ticketing skews young,” Williams observes. The theater does shows for all ages, and for a typical adult event, 16 percent of tickets sold are through the mobile channel. But for a recent show by the boy-band Hansen, popular with tween girls, mobile accounted for nearly 40 percent of tickets. “There’s an age—around 22 or younger—where it would never occur to patrons that you couldn’t buy a ticket from your phone,” Williams says. Mobile and social commerce projects will change the business of any company that invests in it, says Russ Stanley, managing vice president of ticket services and client relations for the San Francisco Giants. For example, instead of being a long-planned activity, a Major League Baseball game can become an impulse buy, Stanley says, bringing in more sales for the organization. Every game day, the Giants have 40,000 seats to sell. If they’ve sold only 30,000, 10,000 spoil every bit as badly as old pears. Last year, the team changed prices daily on about 2,000 seats. Stanley imagines the day when he’ll have a database of fans who, say, live within a mile of the ballpark to whom he can text last-minute offers. “Hey, the Giants have $5 tickets left for tonight. For $5, I’ll walk down there,” he says. “As they’re walking up to the entrance, they’re buying on the mobile.” The Giants started to offer mobile tickets midway through the 2008 season, when they sold about 100 tickets that way per game. In 2009, it was about 200 and Stanley expects to do about 400 per game in the coming years. “Fans who use it love it. It’s getting the people to use it,” he says. Like hot dogs and cold beer, holding a ticket is part of the rite of baseball, he says. Plus, there’s the souvenir value. When pitcher Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in July 2009, about 50 mobile fans, as well as people who had bought tickets online and printed them on plain paper at home, later requested the team print “real” tickets for them to commemorate the event. “We did that for them. It’s good relations,” says Stanley. And, he adds, it could turn into a money-making service in the future

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

REAL WORLD ACTIVITIES

How do the companies involved benefit from the innovations discussed in the case? Is it about more efficient transaction processing, better reaching out to customers, or both?Consider the examples discussed in the case. Go online and research what other companies or industries are doing in terms of the use of social networking sites and mobile commerce. What other examples can you find? Prepare a report that compares those in your research with the ones described here, highlighting similarities and differences. Can you spot any new trends?Use examples from the case to illustrate your answer.“Shopping online can be social again, as it was in person,” says Wade Gerten, CEO of Alvenda. Do you think this is a stretch, or are we in the midst of a turning point in online shopping? Explain your answer.How often, if ever, do you shop with your mobile phone? What do you think are some of the roadblocks that prevent the widespread adoption of mobile shopping?Many of the applications discussed in the case are mostly used by the younger demographic, who grew up around technology. How do online behavior patterns change as they become older, with more responsibilities, and more challenging jobs? Do applications like those discussed in the case become less important? More important?
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