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Cultural capital goes commercial

Mobile retail access is a vital part of an overarching brand experience

It wasn’t one of my proudest moments when, a week before Christmas last year, I was hunched over my smartphone towards the back of the famous Hamley’s Toy Store on London’s Regent Street, composure tethered to an elusive bar of 3G network. The thing was, that bar had been easier to find in-store than the toy I planned on presenting my nephew with for Christmas. When I placed my order on Amazon with a plethora of merchandise within arm’s length, a nagging sense of irony did not escape me – nor did a whole new understanding of retail pain points. To be fair, Christmas shopping in a metropolitan area probably blasts through higher-than-average pain thresholds.

Mobile retail access is a vital part of an overarching brand experience as point-of-purchase becomes less of a physical retail space, and more of a window of opportunity within the customer’s experience. Apple put a foot on the first rung of that ladder for itself, when in 2005 it started rolling out its now customary mobile payment system that turned every store employee into roaming checkouts in brightly coloured t-shirts, ready to tap your shoulder just when you’re certain life simply will not do without this gadget; a few swipes later it’s yours. Since 2011, their easy pay app allows every customer with an iPhone to check themselves out. With flourishing mobile access to digital retail platforms and the payment methods to go along with it, instant gratification for consumption desires is now a reality. The whole world is set to become even more of a retail space. Commercial focus rests on removing retail pain points from the digital scan of opportunity, and initiating first contact.

To that end, Starbucks released a $10 for $5 deal, available as a tie-in to its mobile payment and loyalty scheme, onto Groupon a few weeks ago. Although Starbucks – through extensive in-store PR and word-of-mouth of their ventures into mobile payment in partnership with Square (and its inevitable hiccups) – already had a solid mobile customer base, if there’s one thing the green siren does well, it’s expansion, be it in cup size, commercial spaces or customer numbers. The offer promptly crashed the Groupon servers, which speaks for the potential mass appeal of mobile retail.

Bricks-and-mortar stores pivoting around realisations of a lifestyle or experience have been around for a while. The National Geographic Store, with its ostensive educational mission is a prime example of this; Starbucks itself has cultivated an infinitely reproducible concept of coffee shop cosiness through wifi and overstuffed chairs for the past decade and a half; and Apple certainly sells identical experiences in customer service at its store. All those established concepts successfully turned consumption into an experience. Digital retail is now exploring how experiences can be turned into consumption.

Digital access to lifestyle platforms like blogs and fan communities has underpinned the development of the cultural long tail, and in its wake, the ecommerce of cultural goods such as books, films and music is now well established, both in hard copies and increasingly in instantly accessible digital formats.

The idea of retail tie-ins to go along with cultural experience is an intriguing access route to customers because, for the most part, online retail browsing still lacks the recreational appeal and thrill of exploration inherent in a regular downtown shopping afternoon. In the absence of the experience of a “real life” store, digital retail spaces must develop their own environments – or cleverly appropriate existing domains.

The BBC’s Good Food website is currently expanding its retail links, now offering near seamless access to Tesco’s online shop and delivery service via a layover window. The transition is so fluid, there’s hardly time for reason to catch up with an intrepid hostess to remind her that she likely cannot pull off chocolate soufflés for six. This is a hefty scoop for Tesco, as Good Food is an established and trusted name in home cooking and lifestyle, and from within an environment of user-recommended recipes and educational content on, for instance, how to stop soufflés from collapsing into puddles of sadness, the grocery giant’s stock pretty much sells itself.

Good Food’s retail links are not available for mobile access, yet. But as soon as they are, I am sure I will be plotting completely unattainable menus from the relative comfort of my bus commute.

Prolific social and cultural platforms online create their own powerful demand for relevant lifestyle accessories. All the ecommerce companies need to do is show up like an ice cream van outside a lido.

Observe Goodreads: Amazon has recently acquired the social cataloguing network for an undisclosed sum. With the acquisition, Amazon is closing a gap in its data collection: information on how readers talk about books. They already have intimate knowledge of what individual users buy, and, through Kindle, access to information on how quickly a book is read, where the reader pauses and where one might even abandon a text. The value of this new data for fine tuning retail stocks as well as Amazon’s own publishing ventures is immeasurable. But, as Dan Barker points out over on The Bookseller blog, there had previously been a lack of quality community discussion. There will be little surprise if the visual hierarchy of Goodreads’ retail links shift, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. As traditional broad segmentation of consumers is rendered almost dysfunctional in a digital marketplace of long tail interests and hyper-individualist customers, Amazon is looking not to buy out the market stalls, but to eavesdrop on the local chatter.

The process of mutual absorption between cultural and commercial capital is well underway. Only last week Twitter released its #music app, combining real time information on the most talked about artists and social sharing with access to the iTunes store, Spotify and Rdio. And the readers’ community Small Demons is looking to catalogue and cross-reference anything one can purchase or experience ever mentioned in any given book – foods, films, locations, fashion. Retail links to media goods are already available, helping us stock up our iTunes account accordingly as we read High Fidelity, for instance. The lifestyle data road is being paved by consumers, and expansion into other markets will surely come.

This article originally appeared on the Brand Perfect site. It’s republished with permission.

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