2012 Power 50: No. 45 The Mobile Consumer

It is hard to overstate the impact that mobile consumers — users of smartphones, who now represent more than half of all cell phone users, according to Nielsen — are having on the food retailing business.

Leslie G. Sarasin summed up the role of smartphones in her Speaks presentation at the Food Marketing Institute Show in May: “Twenty-five percent of the time (or one out every four trips to the grocery store) more than half your customers are either getting online before coming to your store to search out coupons or check prices at multiple stores OR they are using mobile technology, i.e. their smart phones, once they get in your store to find coupons, research products and check prices,” FMI’s president and chief executive officer said.

“A quarter of them are utilizing at least two of these technologies, and almost 10% are doing all three — online couponing, online price comparison and using a smartphone to do so while in your store,” she added.

Moreover, while the demographics of tech-savvy customers tend to skew toward the young and upper income, “it appears to be growing across all demographics,” said Sarasin.

The mobile consumer has compelled retailers to come out with an array of apps and upgrades at an unprecedented pace for technology deployment in the grocery business.  This month, for example, Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., announced “Deli Online Easy Ordering,” a one-store test of online deli order placement that is expected to roll out to 50 additional stores this year. The application was “created with smartphone users in mind,” the chain said.

The scope of mobile apps also covers everything from compiling shopping lists, checking recipes, scanning products and tracking spending to finding nutritional information, locating products and scanning information-laden QR codes on products and signs. And, of course, smartphones represent an easy link to the Internet and social media.

“What we see happening is that so much of consumers’ behavior is driven by a need for greater information, and mobility has led to a level of convenience for getting that information that we’ve never experienced before,” said Robert Carpenter, CEO of GS1 US, the standards organization based in Lawrenceville, N.J. GS1 US is spearheading an effort to ensure the accuracy of digital information called the GS1 B2C Alliance.

Mobile phones are also beginning to be used to pay at the checkout, an application poised to take off in the next few years as U.S. smartphones become equipped with near-field communication (NFC) technology.

Perhaps the biggest commitment to smartphones by a U.S. grocer has been made by Ahold’s Stop & Shop/Giant-Landover division. Building on its rollout of the Scan It! handheld device to 351 stores, the retailer is on its way to making the same scanning and targeted couponing functionality available via a smartphone app at those stores by the end of the summer. Ahold’s goal is to expand the app rollout to the rest of its 756 stores (which lack the handhelds), including the 183 units operated by the Giant-Carlisle division.