Google's head of retail, Kristen Johanson, speaks to viewers from the company's Mountain View, Calif. headquarters during a Partners Connect presentation on Aug. 16.

Published: August 17th, 2017

It’s never too early for retailers to start planning for the holiday shopping season, and Google Inc. wants to help.

During an Aug. 16 presentation organized by the Mountain View, Calif. search giant’s Google Partners team, head of retail Kristen Johanson provided viewers with a range of insights gleaned from 2016 holiday sales powered by the company’s Google Shopping platform, but her most important advice was this: Mobile devices have become key to retailers’ success.

“Shopping behaviour has changed drastically in the past five years,” Johanson said during the presentation. “We all hold a mobile device in the palm of our hands, and with that we have access to information whenever and wherever we want it. This is making us more informed than ever before, and as shoppers, more purposeful than ever before. And we see this in the data.”

Though a stereotype persists that mobile is killing retail, Johanson said the reality is more nuanced: Google’s own research has indicated that while foot traffic to physical retail stores has drastically declined, in-store sales have increased.

More specifically, shoppers who look up a retailer’s products on their mobile devices are 25 per cent more likely to purchase something when visiting a brick-and-mortar store, she said, and spend 10 per cent more than their Luddite counterparts on whatever they buy.

“I actually see this in my own behaviour,” Johanson said. “If I think back to five years ago, I would go into a store six, seven, maybe eight times on the quest to find a perfect gift for my husband. I would spend time looking at what was the latest fashions, and what gadgets were trending. I would talk to store clerks, and see what other shoppers were buying. And I just spent a lot of time browsing, going back and forth.

Today, Johanson said, though she still undertakes the same annual quest of finding the perfect holiday gift for her hard-to-shop-for husband, with two small children she no longer has time to visit half a dozen stores – and more importantly, has access to the same information she did before on her mobile device and can enter stores more prepared.

“While I’m… in transit on the way to work, I’m able to do the same research that I would do in-store,” she said. “I’m still going into stores to buy that perfect gift, and I’m still spending the same amount – in fact, I’m probably spending more – I’m just very purposeful when I walk into the store.”

“A common pitfall that we see retailers fall into is they’re still assuming that shoppers want to be educated in-store, when in fact they want to be educated before they walk into a store,” Johanson continued. “The successful retailers are figuring that out, and they’re making sure that they’re truly present throughout the entire shopping journey, preparing shoppers before they walk into the store.”

To be successful, she said, retailers need to be present both on and offline, and allow shoppers to move fluidly between both – and mobile is key to helping them do so.

In fact, Google is now projecting that one in three of all commerce sales this holiday season will come from mobile – a 35 per cent year over year growth from last year.

3 trends driving shopper behaviour

To help shoppers implement Google’s suggestions, Johanson summarized the factors contributing to mobile’s dominance of retail as three trends:

  1. Discoverability drives loyalty;
  2. Mass messages are meaningless;
  3. Friction means failure.

Of the first, Johanson said that retailers were long past the years when shoppers might have purchased the same brand year after year simply because it was what they had always used.

Instead, she said, shoppers are becoming loyal to their immediate needs: According to Google’s research, only one in 10 are certain about the specific brand they want when they first start looking for information online, while two-thirds agree that when conducting a search on their smartphones, they’re looking for the most relevant information regardless of brand.

The upside, she said, is that just about any brand can step in by offering a superior experience, which leads into her second trend: That today’s shoppers expect personalization, rather than mass market messages, and their phones are a key tool.

According to Google’s research, nine out of 10 consumers will choose to buy from the retailer that best predicts their intent and suggests products.

As for the third, it’s no secret that today’s shoppers expect a smooth omni-channel experience, Johanson said, but what might surprise retailers is just how big an impact friction has on their experience.

For example, she said, Google’s research has shown that 53 percent of mobile users will leave a site that takes longer than three second to load – yet the average mobile site takes 22 seconds to load. For each second that mobile pages load faster, retailers see a corresponding 27 per cent conversion rate increase.

“With this device that everyone is holding in their hand, they’re looking for information. And they want that information wherever, whenever, and however they can find it,” Johanson said, indicating her smartphone. “If your site is loading in 22 seconds, they’re not going to find what they’re looking for.”

The expectations go beyond site speed, she noted: for example, almost half of users surveyed by Google said they wanted retailers to provide automated services to save time, with 44 per cent expecting brands to allow them to reorder items with a single click, and 32 per cent indicating they would rather speak into a device than type on it.

So how can retailers take advantage?

Naturally, Google offers more than a few tools that retailers trying to reach mobile audiences can choose from, product marketing manager Alex Chen said during the presentation: For example, they can use Google Shopping to ensure their products are displayed near the top of a user’s search results, which especially on mobile devices have a three times higher rate of engagement than results below.

Google offers a wide range of products for retailers looking to reach mobile customers, product marketing manager Alex Chen said.

“It’s like the top shelf in a store,” Chen said. “If you go into a retail store and you’re glancing at the entire shelf, you’re probably looking at things that are eye level. That’s the equivalent of these first three ads on Google Shopping.”

Equally important is identifying when your customers are ready to buy, he said: For example, by using Google Trends data to highlight searches that led to sales during November 2016.

Another good practice is to anticipate holiday traffic based on survey data: 54 per cent of respondents surveyed by Google said they plan to start shopping the day after Hallowe’en, for example, and planning for key dates such as the last day you can offer free shipping might be helpful as well, since 46 per cent of shoppers surveyed by Google said free shipping and shipping promotions were deciding factors on where they shop, Chen said.

As for mobile site loading speeds, Google offers a free diagnostic service here, and accelerated mobile page (AMP) services for retailers looking to speed their website up.

(ITBusiness.ca, it turns out, has an average mobile loading speed of 15 seconds, and an estimated visitor loss rate of 32 per cent as a result.)

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