Mike Cassidy

Sep 30, 2014

REI puts mobile at the center of the shopping experience

I spend a lot of my time thinking about what the store of the future will look like.

Hey, don’t judge me. With technology racing ahead, smartphone penetration off the charts and consumer habits undergoing a riot of change, contemplating the future of shopping could be a full-time gig.

So, it was interesting to hear the guys from REI at the Shop.org Summit 2014 presenting their vision of where the outdoor gear store was headed. Maybe it’s not a shocker that the REI plan is all about mobile. Brad Brown, the Kent, Washington-based company’s senior vice president of digital retail, says that mobile is what the company thinks about first when it thinks about its customers’ shopping experience.

 Brad Brown, SVP of digital retail at REI

We’ve talked about mobile and mobile moments and delivering on those first,” he told a ballroom full of retailers and those who work in the field on Tuesday.

It was kind of a bold statement, in part because figuring out what to do with mobile has been driving retailers crazy for years. Customers love to browse on their smartphones. Traffic to mobile sites and apps is increasing dramatically. But the increase in mobile revenue is not following. And here’s Brown embracing the platform lustily.

But there is more to REI’s thinking. The plan isn’t to go all-in on mobile and let REI’s impressive brick-and-mortar stores wither. Instead, Brown and REI CEO Jerry Stitzke, who sat next to him on stage, see smartphones as an extension of the retailer’s physical presence.

“Mobile moments” is the buzz phrase around REI.

“Mobile moments,” Brown says, “Those are the things that Julie Ask from Forrester calls the 150 times (a day) that Americans pull smartphones out of their pocket to do something.”

It’s an unbelievable opportunity to connect. Smartphones are always on, always there, always calling, “look at me.”

REI executives have been thinking a lot about how to connect consumers’ dependence on mobile phones with stores that for years have been designed with a sense of place, a sense of community, Stritzke calls it.

And so, design experts spend hours in REI stores talking to customers about their mobile habits, about REI’s mobile offerings, about what’s helpful and what’s not. And of course, the store offers free WiFi and it is working on arming every sales associate with a mobile selling assistant, a way to help turn an in-store experience into a mobile experience.

Beyond all that, REI is in the midst of a major overhaul of its digital properties, Brown says.

“The attention to detail in delivering a branded experience, we need to find a way to move that into our digital assets, into our digital experience,” Stritzke says. “I believe the impact of the idea of a flagship presence online for us is the fusion of creativity and technology.”

REI CEO Jerry Stritzke

And no, REI executives are not worried about losing in-store customers to their online sites. Why would they be?

“If we’re the brand that people see when they pull their mobile phones out, and we can drive an immediate connection to them, we believe that that significantly ups our odds of getting a sale,” Brown says. “Again, we don’t care if it happens on a mobile device, on a tablet, on a desktop or in a store.”

What’s clear is that customers appear to be leading the way. They’ve already embraced mobile as a key shopping tool and REI’s own figures show their customers are enthusiastic webroomers, the buzzword for the practice of browsing online and buying in-store.

In fact, Brown says that over 75 percent of REI customers who buy something in a store, have browsed that product’s category online within the seven days leading up to the purchase.  And the browsing doesn’t stop once they arrive at REI.

“The No. 1 site visited by customers in our stores, on their mobile phones, is rei.com,” he says. “That’s an amazing connection.”

And so, the rise of mobile is not at all a signal of the beginning of the end for physical stores, in the eyes of REI and I’m sure plenty of other retailers. In fact, the company plans to open more of its flashy flagship stores in the future, Stritzke says, and they’re likely to use data gathered from mobile users to figure out where to put them.

“Often we’re looking at our digital presence in a market and our members’ presence in a market before entering it,” Stritzke says of those who enroll in REI’s membership program. “Many of those members started their relationship with REI on a digital platform.”

At the very least, REI offers an intriguing vision — and a little something more to think about as I contemplate the store of the future.

Photos of Brad Brown and Jerry Stritzke courtesy of the National Retail Federation

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.