Canadian retailers lag U.S. counterparts with in-store use of mobile devices

By LuAnn LaSalle, The Canadian Press  | April 12, 2012

MONTREAL - Canadian retailers are about two years behind their U.S. counterparts when it comes to staff using smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices in stores, suggests a study released Thursday.

Consumers are moving faster than Canadian retailers in using such devices to find product information and do comparison shopping, said the study by International Data Corporation Canada and the Retail Council of Canada.

"I think, ultimately, in many cases (retailers) will need to ramp up faster because of the speed at which consumer empowerment is changing," said Shafiq Jamal, vice-president of the retail council's Western Canada region.

Some consumers are looking for coupons and loyalty rewards on their devices in stores while others are doing comparison shopping or looking for deals, Jamal said.

"It's about convenience, it's about giving information to the consumer at a time when they need it and want it," he said from Vancouver.

The survey findings suggest 40 per cent of retailers are planning to use mobile devices to interact with customers in the next three years, while just 24 per cent plan to do so this year.

But the Retail Council of Canada said retailers will need to catch up to consumers' use of technology and social media.

"It brings e-commerce inside the store, it brings the kind of information people can get on mobile phones in the store," Leslie Hand, research director of IDC's retail insights, said Thursday.

"It creates a higher level of customer engagement because you're capturing the real needs of the consumer. You create better loyalty from that consumer."

South of the border, employees at the upscale department store chain Nordstrom use iPod Touch devices to help customers with finding the right size or getting an out-of-stock item, she said.

And Home Depot staff in the U.S. use a mobile device for such tasks as inventory checking or for on-the-spot checkout payments.

Both Lowe's Home Improvement stores in the U.S. and Canada are using iPod Touch devices, Hand added, noting the Canadian hardware competitor Rona (TSX:RON) isn't doing anything comparable.

Jamal said the lag is not just so much a reluctance by Canadian retailers to embrace technology, adding the U.S. is a much bigger market and Canada's retailers have higher labour costs, tariffs and import duties in addition to competitive pressures.

Hand said some Canadian retailers are doing pilot projects using mobile shopping apps or mobile devices.

Some Forzani Group sporting goods stores are using devices to help find products for customers and retailer Groupe Dynamite has a mobile pilot project, she said.

Canadian Tire (TSX:CTC) says it has a free mobile app that allows customers to scan product barcodes in stores and access product information including price, reviews and availability. Customers can also locate the nearest Canadian Tire store based on their location, search for products on and browse the Canadian Tire flyer on their smartphones.

"We see those shopping apps come out first and then the retailer looks at how do I make my store associates smarter? How do I give them tools that enable them to have more information and be able to facilitate a happier experience?"

The study involved more than 150 web-based retailers and was compiled between January and March of this year.

As more Canadians use smartphones it's expected retailers will catch up to what their American counterparts are doing, Hand said.

It's been estimated that about 45 per cent of Canada's wireless subscribers now use smartphones.

A recent study by Google found that Canadians tend to research products online, but not actually make purchases on the web, unlike their American peers.