As the iPhone Turns 10, Retailers Are Still Figuring Out How It Can Streamline the Purchasing Process

Even while offline shopping is increasingly a smartphone game

Store chains need to catch up to Apple's great product achievement of the last decade.
Photo Illustration: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Getty Images

The iPhone celebrates its 10th birthday Thursday, and many news outlets will commemorate Apple’s pocket-size supercomputer and the always-connected impact it’s had on the culture. As they should. But here, let’s use this mobile milestone to examine whether retailers have adequately reacted to the seismic shift in shopping behavior that can be traced back to the device’s decade of popularity.

Adobe reported that 40 percent of Black Friday sales last year came via mobile, while eMarketer’s latest estimates predicted that U.S. retail sales via smartphones and tablets will increase more than 50 percent this year to about $12 billion. And a new study spearheaded by Facebook found that 40 percent of its 2 billion global users employ a phone or tablet to shop in stores. But major merchants—even as hundreds of stores close and Amazon eats their online lunch—still too often have different leadership silos for ecommerce and brick and mortar, per industry players and observers.

“I see this constantly, especially for the marketing [side of things],” said Martin Barthel, global head of retail and ecommerce at Facebook, chatting with Adweek after a retail breakfast event for the press on Wednesday in New York.

Circa mid-2017, is it a missed opportunity not to have an executive omnichannel role—someone who oversees both ecommerce and physical retail—near the top of a retail chain’s pecking order?

“It is,” Barthel said. “This is the consumer behavior. Consumers do not think online versus offline anymore. They do both, and this is how an organization should be built with respect to consumer behavior.”

Others had similar takes.

“While some companies might consider omnichannel execution as purely operations, omnichannel should be a companywide initiative,” said Lauren Beitelspacher, assistant professor of marketing at Babson College. “Omnichannel now encompasses the entire customer journey, and this is something that has to be executed in a meaningful way from all business contexts, from logistics and infrastructure to marketing and communications.”

Jared Belsky, president of agency 360i, added, “The No. 1 obstacle to flawless omnichannel execution for marketers is organizational dynamics—not technology, not budgeting and not brains. The C-suite is starting to see that, and platforms like Google are starting to enable it. And organizations are starting to change where the question is simply, ‘If I have $1, where’s the best place to put that $1?’ It’s channel agnostic, medium agnostic and brand agnostic. You are going to see the C-suite—and frankly the CFO—demand that as the platforms and technologies make it possible.”

From 2014 through 2016, the talk in retail executive recruiting circles was all about the rise of the chief digital officer, or CDO, with Nike, Target, Urban Outfitters and other brands launching such roles to push forward their digital transformations. Is the omnichannel executive director the next big gig in retail? Maybe, maybe not. No matter what the retail role is called—CMOs and vps of marketing, for instance, perhaps should entail a much bigger omnichannel focus going forward—it appears to be high time for merchants to truly get with the smartphone world.

“We still continue to see that the majority of brick-and-mortar marketing is siloed and that the vast majority of marketers have not woken up to the reality that a mobile device allows them to connect the digital and physical world and align their ecommerce and drive consumers into stores,” explained Michael Rosen, Foursquare’s sales vp. “CMOs need to ensure that they break the walls down so that the person in charge of driving people into stores can get credit for ecommerce transactions and vice versa.”

A LinkedIn search for omnichannel directors rendered varying kinds of specialists in the discipline, including Camille Bruc, omnichannel and CRM director at Bally U.S., who oversees ecommerce and digital in-store sales (but not all retail) for the fashion and apparel brand. The fact that she manages how digital and data mesh with offline seems cutting edge compared to what industry players are saying about the space in general.

Belsky of 360i suggested that ever-increasing levels of mobile shopping will only turn up the heat on retailers to make their marketing more holistic.

“My basic prediction is that within a few years, we are going to see those silos melt,” he said.