Now that half of all U.S. mobile subscribers own smartphones and two-thirds of smartphone users say they use their devices to shop by looking up product features, snapping QR codes on product tags, reading reviews and even contacting friends for their opinions, it’s no real shocker that retailers are beginning to embrace in-store mobile activity. It’s a big opportunity – and apparently getting bigger.

New research from Deloitte found that smartphone activity currently influences 5.1 percent of annual retail store sales, translating into $159 billion in forecasted sales for 2012. Looking ahead, Deloitte anticipates this impact will grow to 19 percent of total store sales by 2016, amounting to a whopping $689 billion in mobile-influenced sales. (By comparison, direct mobile commerce sales will pass the $30 billion mark by that time, according to industry estimates.)

Today’s in-store customers use smartphones for product research on company websites, price comparison on competitor or 3rd-party sites and mobile application use. In particular, the study results showed that:

  • Nearly half (48 percent) of smartphone owners surveyed said using their phones has influenced their decision to purchase an item in a store. Six out of 10 (61 percent) of those who use their devices to shop have done so while shopping at the store, and half (52 percent) before they enter the store.
  • About four out of 10 (37 percent) smartphone owners surveyed who used a smartphone on their last shopping trip utilized a third-party mobile shopping application, and more than one-third (34 percent) used a retailer’s mobile application. If that means that people are just as likely to use a retailer’s own app rather than a third party, then it’s a very good case for highly branded retailers to offer an experience they can control.
  • Interestingly, smartphone users appear more likely to make a purchase than those who do not own one or do not use it to assist with in-store shopping. When asked about their most recent shopping trip, nearly three quarters (72 percent) of smartphone owners surveyed indicated they made a purchase on that day, compared with 63 percent of respondents who did not use a phone. Smartphone users were also more likely to eventually make a purchase: among those who did not buy anything on their last trip, 59 percent of those who used a smartphone eventually made a purchase, compared to only 22 percent of those who did not use one. This could also suggest that smartphone users are more ready to buy, since they have done research prior to entering the store. Their experience will be driven by finding exactly what they expected or what was promised.
  • Certain retail categories are feeling the effect of mobile-influence more than others. The impact is greatest at Electronic/Appliances and GM/Department/Warehouse; least at Convenience/Gas Station. See a full breakdown in this chart.

It’s also worth noting that Deloitte singled out smartphone users in this study. To me, that’s yet another signal that marketers cannot necessarily lump “mobile users” into one big group containing both smartphones and tablets. Consumers use smartphones and tablets differently, and tablets are emerging as a separate category, one that needs to be leveraged for its own unique marketing potential.

Mobile devices (of all sorts) need your attention because they are now recognized as personalized digital ecosystems, each one offering marketers massive potential for expanded reach, real-time engagement. With mobile-specific company websites, apps, daily deals (Groupon, Living Social, etc.), location-based services/offers (Foursquare, SCVNGR, etc.), QR codes, Microsoft Tags, SMS campaigns and still more innovation to come, marketers can choose from a variety of approaches to build engagement. Just be sure to keep your strategy customer-centric. Specifically, how do your customers use mobile? What can your team do to enhance the customer experience and connect the digital (marketing) and physical (customer) worlds?

The first step to assess your opportunity is to walk the floors of your stores and talk to customers who have phones in their hands.