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How The Smartphone Revolution Hit The Retail World

Smartphones have upended communication and consumption, leaving retailers to transform themselves to attract fickle, online buyers.

Shopping bags and smartphones?
Shopping bags and smartphones?
Rubén Belluomo

SANTIAGO — Apple founder Steve Jobs reinvented an entire market when he launched the iPhone in San Francisco, on June 29, 2007. Not just telephones, but our lives, changed that day. The first iPhone was a magical device that soon became our little window to the world, a pocket-sized computer that has redefined how we communicate, study and consume.

Perhaps the smartphone's biggest effect has been to release waves of creativity between customers and firms, changing forever how humans interact with products and brands. This, in turn, has transformed entire industries: Hotel and accommodations have seen the arrival of Airbnb; taxis now contend with Uber; and films and music are downloaded or streamed, not bought on discs. Speaking by phone is now just one real-time communication option.

The next decade cannot be predicted, but we can observe 10 ways in which the iPhone has changed shopping over the past decade:

1. Phone device is at core of retail

Before smartphones, people visited shops, searched through the racks and asked for assistance, which led to their selecting certain items. Now the process begins, and is very often completed, online. Smartphones have changed the consumer's relationship with brands, and retail firms are under unprecedented pressure to provide a consistent experience through all channels, and be available at all times and everywhere.

2. Customer in command

The ease of use of mobile phones, the amount of information online, the choice of firms and easy access to opinions on social networks have an enormous influence on consumers. Firms no longer dictate when, where and how to buy. Clients can look for products as they please, and with more possibilities for choosing and comparing prices than ever before. The internet is a 24/7 platform.

3. Personalized supply chain

If the supply chain is a means to an end, the end is no longer the shop. The consumer can decide online when to receive purchases, and seek more information on the product's origins, how it is delivered and prices. The supply chain has thus moved up from a back-office function to an indicator of how competitive a firm is.

4. A shop without walls

Location used to be everything and businesses would set up shop in prime selling locations, and even saturate the physical marketplace. Now they are rethinking the very nature of the shop. It has been a painful experience for some, and prompted shop closures and reduced physical presence. But it also forged a new way of thinking about how one buys, with as many offers online now as in shopfront windows.

5. Experience is everything

With smartphones and the information they carry, firms can no longer compete on the basis of price and variety alone. They must provide an experience that meets their customers' expectations, and is available consistently at all contact points. Whether looking for a good offer or providing advanced services, experience is what makes the difference between firms.

6. New kind of employee

The retail experience lives and dies with employees. With highly informed and connected customers, workers must absolutely have the necessary tools, like the right knowledge to answer queries or recommend products pertinently. If the special product is not in stock, they must be ready to find it in another business, seek alternatives or assure the customer it will be sent as soon as it arrives. Otherwise, the customer is certain to move elsewhere.

7. Showroom

People like to compare before buying, and smartphones have made it easy to see something in a shop, then compare it online with similar products or its price elsewhere. You could snap a photo and send it to friends for their opinion, which may or may not lead to a purchase. For firms, this new ability to choose means they must be consistent at all contact points, while having products that are exclusive and desirable is an advantage.

8. Data and connectivity

Smartphones have enhanced consumer knowledge and access to firms, products and services. They are also an opportunity for firms to create customer loyalty: Those with the right know-how to form accurate customer profiles will connect data from various contact points and invest money in specific promotions targeted at appropriate customers.

9. Straight path to buyer

Smartphones have become a shortcut from firms to customers. They have increased competition for customer loyalty and created shorter life cycles for products. Before, a brand presented its collection in Fashion Week and months later, you could buy the items in shops. Now, many firms start selling when the product is being displayed on the catwalk, while some brands present collections online or on social networks.

10. Customer is King (or Queen)

Since the iPhone appeared, products must not only look good in shops but also online. Firms are using new strategies like marketing by influencers, and Virtual or Augmented Reality experiences to help customers visualize themselves with products before buying.

One More Thing...

Jobs was outstanding at marketing and presentation, and created a desire for his products. People queued up to see, touch and buy an iPhone in 2007. And the same happens every year, when Apple fans anxiously wait for its successors. No smartphone has been perfect, not even the iPhone, but Apple and Jobs never let perfection get in the way of progress.

To keep abreast of a constantly changing market, retail firms must think like tech firms. As any given customer needs change constantly, the business model must also evolve, learn from other markets and incorporate new technologies. If retail firms want to survive, they must choose the path of constant evolution.

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Look At This Crap! The "Enshittification" Theory Of Why The Internet Is Broken

The term was coined by journalist Cory Doctorow to explain the fatal drift of major Internet platforms: if they were ever useful and user-friendly, they will inevitably end up being odious.

A photo of hands holding onto a smartphone

A person holding their smartphone

Gilles Lambert/ZUMA
Manuel Ligero


The universe tends toward chaos. Ultimately, everything degenerates. These immutable laws are even more true of the Internet.

In the case of media platforms, everything you once thought was a good service will, sooner or later, disgust you. This trend has been given a name: enshittification. The term was coined by Canadian blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow to explain the inevitable drift of technological giants toward... well.

The explanation is in line with the most basic tenets of Marxism. All digital companies have investors (essentially the bourgeoisie, people who don't perform any work and take the lion's share of the profits), and these investors want to see the percentage of their gains grow year after year. This pushes companies to make decisions that affect the service they provide to their customers. Although they don't do it unwillingly, quite the opposite.

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Annoying customers is just another part of the business plan. Look at Netflix, for example. The streaming giant has long been riddling how to monetize shared Netflix accounts. Option 1: adding a premium option to its regular price. Next, it asked for verification through text messages. After that, it considered raising the total subscription price. It also mulled adding advertising to the mix, and so on. These endless maneuvers irritated its audience, even as the company has been unable to decide which way it wants to go. So, slowly but surely, we see it drifting toward enshittification.

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