Retailers Rejoice! Top Technology Tools Can Re-Invigorate Sales Year-Round

By Karen Lowe, KLowe@us.ibm.com

The recently concluded holiday season was a happy one for most retailers, thanks in part to a recovering economy, heightened consumer confidence and no debilitating weekend snowstorms.

Oh, and wide acceptance of technology gadgets and experiences may have helped a bit, too.

Of course, the latter is what turbo-charged holiday shopping for many enterprising retailers, who understand that shoppers now have the tools to shop and purchase anytime, anywhere, and anyplace they may be.

From compelling Facebook offers to home pages customized for smartphones, not to mention in-store returns processed in a breeze, successful retailers are glomming onto, and in many cases leading, the technology-driven trends that are driving today’s ubiquitous shopping experience.

At IBM, we are delighted to see that the many simple-to-use devices, programs and processes available to retailers and consumers are being as warmly embraced as a zebra-print Snuggie -- and virtually eliminating most barriers to purchase. When a shopper is ready, retailers are more than ready to serve – and to gently prod consumers who may be waffling.

These observations aren’t merely anecdotal; plenty of metrics tell the tale of the (register) tape, and lend further evidence to these five hot retailing trends that will continue to drive shopping experiences throughout 2012:

1. Embrace & empower your fans. Sure, advertising and “expert” endorsements are important, and over the past year retailers and manufacturers have made major strides in building trust with consumers. In fact, according to an IBM survey, Retailers have experienced a 66% increase in trust in mature markets, while manufacturers have increased theirs by 70%. But if you really want to get consumers behind your product, give your biggest fans a voice. Shoppers really trust the opinions of friends and family the most when looking for retail advice. That tells me that a robust social networking environment, where fans are allowed to join in the dialogue about your products and services, is key to getting and leveraging vital word-of-mouth support.

2.  Seeing is believing. Who doesn’t love YouTube? But the massively-popular video-sharing website is much more than a repository of frat-boy hijinks and music clips. More than ever, retailers are priming the shopping pump by showcasing their brands on YouTube, or with compelling videos on their own websites. For instance, super-shopping sisters Elle and Blair Fowler have perfected the “haul” video, YouTube snippets that show off the great bargains they have found – and that garner millions of views. As a result, many retailers – like J.C. Penney – are now asking Elle and Blair to review their products, while others are linking from their own website to positive YouTube “haul” reports.

3. Mobile madness! In 2010, the number of mobile shoppers grew a whopping 92%, and the trend continued to explode in 2011. Our IBM Benchmark report found that mobile device-accessed retail traffic doubled last year. Savvy retailers are optimizing the mobile experience with compelling mobile-specific shopping experiences, thus enabling consumers to act on deals at a moment’s notice. Retailers who aren’t on the mobile bandwagon run the risk of being retailers no more next holiday season!

4. Don’t forget tablets. If you think you’ve mastered mobility by optimizing your online presence for just smartphones, well, think again. Conversion rates for iPads and other tablets (6.5% in an October 2011 survey) are nearly double that of all mobile devices (3.6%), verifying what many pundits have long predicted – that the easier-to-use tablet is the best mobile platform. This gives retailers further impetus to deliver hyper-personalized shopping experiences featuring smart promotions, free shipping and more!

5. You’ve got numbers – so crunch them! E-commerce generates voluminous, relevant data that can help shape or retool your sales strategies. For instance, during last year’s Fashion Week, the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Lab and IBM Social Analytics measured and analyzed millions of tweets containing hashtags of famous designers. This word cloud sentiment analysis provided instant insight into the likes and dislikes from the runway, and furthered the dialogue on the hottest fashion trends. By using social analytics, retailers are learning what consumers value about their brands – so they are revising marketing and sales campaigns accordingly. Are you?

Retailers, don’t rest on your 2011 holiday shopping laurels. The time to assess and revamp your technology-centric marketing strategies and tactics is now – and don’t forget to tweet about your tweaks!

Karen Lowe is GM of the Retail Industry for IBM. She can be reached at KLowe@us.ibm.com.