The ‘Wi’ Phenomenon

Connected and disconnected: Wireless technologies are making shopping easier any time, any place.

To hear Jim Crawford tell it, consumers will soon be shopping and buying products any time, any place. The Internet has delivered part of that promise — shopping from the comfort of one’s own home — but Crawford, vice president of Retail Forward, expects consumers to fuel the economy at the gym, airport, poolside…the list is potentially endless.

Crawford shared his remarks at Retail Forward’s strategic outlook conference, “Retailing 2010: Five Years Survived, Five Left to Thrive,” held in New York last month.

PDAs and cell phones, along with the expansion of wireless technologies like WiFi (short for wireless fidelity), WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and ED-VO (a wireless Internet access technology that can be used with laptops as well as phones) already offer access to information from many locations, he said. The key is extending the Web to other devices. Crawford said the demographics of online shoppers will become much closer to those of brick-and-mortar shoppers as Internet access is more widespread and the devices become cheaper.

“Retailers who think that their Web shoppers will always be more educated, affluent and younger than their brick-and-mortar shoppers are in for a rude awakening,” he explained. “WiMAX will bring connections to rural parts of the U.S. and to developing countries.”

Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, has the country’s largest free WiFi hot spot, which is a place where you can connect to the Internet. (WiMAX service is seven times faster than a regular WiFi spot.)

Some companies are already targeting purchasing platforms around the new technology. Amazon.com created a venue where you can listen to music on the phone and then purchase the song.

“People thinking about multichannel retailing today often view the concept as connecting Web sites, catalogues and stores together for a seamless shopping experience,” said Crawford, noting that this approach is far from complete.

Marketing opportunities have been developed for different devices. For example, TiVo’s digital video recorder enables all commercials to be deleted except those that interest you. Retailers can sell personalized commercials based on a viewer’s interest, so a fan of HGTV might see ads for Home Depot.

This story first appeared in the June 20, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The multichannel world is nothing if not international. Lastminute.com and allofmp3.com offer American shoppers products and services they can’t find in the U.S. Allofmp3.com, for example, takes advantage of a loophole in Russian copyright laws that allows it to sell songs for downloads for about 8 cents.

If retailers want to succeed in multichannel retailing, Crawford advises offering services for those who want to buy and those who only want to browse. In the U.K., Tesco.com has expanded into areas such as DVD rentals, flower delivery, bill paying, downloading music and legal services with DIY divorces and wills.

“Forget what you know about channels,” said Crawford. “Consumers don’t think in terms of channels and already move between Web sites, catalogues and stores with ease.”