The iPad: A Retail Revolution?

There I was standing in line at the Apple store at 8:30 on the morning on April 3, waiting to pick up a brand new iPad. My mission? Check out this new device to see how retailers might use it to get ahead. Yeah, OK, and I really wanted one for myself, too. But I was legitimately interested in playing with it to determine good retail uses. And I definitely think there are some potentially revolutionary ways retailers can take advantage of the iPad.

Yes, it’s really something profoundly different

Understanding the value of the iPad starts with understanding why it is truly different than anything we’ve seen previously. Many of the attributes you might use to describe it have existed previously, but it’s the combination of those attributes that truly represents the revolution. The fact that it’s self-contained, light weight, and unburdened by a keyboard and a mouse means that it’s easy to hold and carry around. And it’s easy to share with others. It turns on instantly, and the battery lasts for a long time. The touch screen interface feels natural and intuitive. The apps it can run are powerful and capable of more functionality than most web pages. The combination of these attributes provides a powerful platform for retailers to leverage.

Here are just three ways retailers can leverage the power of the iPad:

Take catalogs to the promised land
For years, we’ve had visions of using technology to take catalogs to a new level. But online versions of our print catalogs just haven’t really taken off. Sure, we’ve added hyperlinks to make them interactive, and some have even incorporated multimedia elements, but the online versions really haven’t bested the old fashion print version. I believe a main contributor to the lack of the online catalog’s success is the fact that it’s just not comfortable and cozy to flip though an online catalog. Viewing on a computer screen using a keyboard and a mouse is not comfortable and convenient. The extra benefits of the interactive nature lose out to the lack of comfort in browsing.

But the iPad brings the comfort. It’s easy to sit on the couch and flip through pages with your fingers. It feels pretty natural. It doesn’t get hot, and it’s easy to just turn it off when little Suzy needs help with her homework and instantly turn it back on later with a single press of a button. Interactivity and personalization are possible with an internet connected device, of course, so catalogs created for the iPad can be extremely relevant, fun and informative. And they provide a direct connection to purchase capabilities. It’s really a beautiful thing. I believe catalogs that take advantage of these capabilities will be a huge hit with consumers.

Sales floor assistant
Part of the dream of true cross channel integration is the ability to bring the advantages of technology into the physical store in a way that can improve the shopping experience for our customers. Initially, some retailers used kiosks or POS-to-web integrations to provide these experiences. Lately, we’ve had lots of discussions about providing these capabilities to the mobile phones our customers carry with them into the store.

With the iPad, a sales associate can carry with her all the product data, the customer data, and the recommendations available online. Because the device is so easily shareable, she can easily pull up recommendations and hand them to the customer. She can show the customer how the brown lounge chair he’s viewing in the store would look in the red color that’s available via special order and place that special order on the spot. Or she can play a demonstration video of the food processor that struck the customer’s interest and easily show customer reviews. The possibilities are endless.

Virtual planogram and visual merchandising guide
Many retailers are still creating giant visual merchandising and planogram books, printing and binding them, and snail mailing them out to each store. It’s a costly process and not very flexible or efficient. Last minute changes mean reprints or sloppy additions to the original book.

With iPads at each store, we can send full color, highly customizable guides that are custom made for each store, if desired. They will be easy to carry to the racks, and they can even have built in check boxes to help track when the work is done. Efficiencies abound.


Of course, there could be s significant capital investment to stock each store with set of iPads, and some of the consumer catalog capabilities I mentioned will not bear much fruit until the iPad is more common — or until the inevitable stream of competitive products hits the market and reduces costs. But there’s little doubt these types of devices will become fairly ubiquitous. And when they do, the retailers who are ready take advantage of the capabilities will be the retailers who come out ahead.

What do you think? Do these ideas seem nutty? What ideas do you have?


  • By jeff, April 13, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    Kevin, I love it. You are brilliant!!!

  • By Scott Silverman, April 13, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    Great post, Kevin. Did you write it on your iPad? I think your idea of sales associates using an iPad to share and discuss produce information with customers is fantastic. The mobile kiosk!

  • By xavier, April 14, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    I think part of it will depend on how easy it is to develop software for the device. We all heard about the Adobe/Apple debacle, but there are other obscure additional rules that were added to the SDK (like limitations on third party tracking, etc). Building applications for the iPad is expensive.

    But overall, it’s a matter of time before these ideas become a reality. The cross channel integration seems the most powerful one. Not sure about the catalog one. I’m not a catalog guy (maybe it’s a generational thing), but if trees can be saved so be it!

  • By sarahallenshort, April 14, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    little suzy = little mckenna?

  • By David Fishman, April 14, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Spot on Kevin. There are some limitations with Apple and the ipad … namely Adobe’s flash technology, which is used by quite a few ecommerce platform vendors and retailers. In general the tablet / notebook concept makes a lot of sense for retailers + merchandising, so it will not be long before there are better / alternative tablet computers competing with Apple.

  • By Jeff Weidauer, April 15, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    The real fun won’t start until the iPad owner base gets past the early adopters. Once it – along with other tablet-type computers – becomes fairly common, then those users will think of ways to incorporate it into their daily lives that no one can foresee today. I think your ideas here are great; they just may not by nutty enough. Going to be fun to watch though.

  • By Kevin Ertell, April 16, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    Thanks to all for your comments.

    Jeff: Thank you. Very nice of you to say.

    Scott: As a matter of fact, I did write the majority of this post on my iPad while on a plane. Worked great, even when the large guy in front of me leaned back. 🙂

    I’m glad you like the idea of sales associates using it in-store. I think it could really enhance the shopping experience for a lot of people.

    Xavier: Good points about the ease of developing apps for the iPad. I know there have recently been some restriction on analytics within apps, which is disappointing. I hope that Apple will be cooperative in allowing lots of interesting and useful retail apps. Of course, there will soon be lots of other similar tablets on the market. So hopefully there will be choice without multiple platform development nightmares.

    Sarah: Makenna may have been a bit of an inspiration for little Suzy. But then little Suzy can also be a metaphor for little Ruby. 🙂

    David: I agree that the lack of Flash is a bummer. The good news is HTML5 works and it looks to have some good capabilities. (Watching video on on the iPad is pretty sweet.) It will also be interesting to see what some of the other vendors bring to market. The next year or so should be very interesting.

    Jeff W: I completely agree on the current low base. I think you make a very interesting point about the many coming uses that we can’t even begin to think about today. I definitely appreciate you thinking my ideas may not be nutty enough. 🙂 I can’t wait to see what is to come.

  • By sahal, April 25, 2010 @ 4:15 am

    jeffW.l completely agree on the current low base.

  • By Joel VanderHoek, May 11, 2010 @ 1:49 am

    Hi Kevin – great post, some similar ideas to things I’ve thought out on my blog, a few months back. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Brad Fick’s article on where he predicts that the iPad “won’t cut it” in retail for several reasons. Link provided below:


  • By Kevin Ertell, May 11, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    Thanks for your comment and the links, Joel.

    I read your post and completely agree with your points-of-view. We’re clearly on the same page.

    I can’t say the same for Brad Fick, though. While I think he raises some very good points, I also think he’s taking a very short term perspective by pointing our current obstacles that can and will be overcome. I agree that the iPad in its current state is a consumer device. But certainly apps can be written that are more associate directed, and I don’t see any reason Apple would refuse to allow those to exist. I think his point about security is good, but I’m not sure the apps that an associate would run are necessarily apps that need to be behind a firewall and in a highly secure environment. Nonetheless, it’s definitely a legitimate concern that could limit opportunities and adoption. All in all, though, I think we need to keep an open mind about the possibilities and not give up before we’ve even started. My blog post today, called “We tried that before and it didn’t work” deals with some of these defeatist views.

    Thanks again for the links and the feedback.

  • By Brett Hurt, May 14, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Kevin, whether it is the iPad, or an Android-powered tablet, or something else, I agree that these devices will soon become ubiquitous. The iPhone has launched many imitators and lifted the overall innovation of the mobile industry. The iPad will do the same for the tablet and NetBooks industry. I wrote my own thoughts about this trend on Bazaarblog:

    Great job on this post, and I look forward to retailers getting more creative now that the iPad is out to shake things up.

  • By Kevin Ertell, May 23, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    Thanks for your comment, Brett, and for the reference to your excellent post. It will be very interesting to see the role this new generation of tablet plays in retail environments.

  • By gshah, October 3, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    Great write up. But how do you get the ipad to work over the internet, and still contain costs? Eg in comparision to paper reprints etc., how does a retailer arm staff with multiple ipads and ensure internet access to each of those terminals, with low cost. What would be the numbers on this?


  • By Kevin Ertell, October 5, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    Thanks for your comment, GShah. You certainly bring up a valid point. It’s true that many retailers either don’t currently have Internet connections at all or they are very slow speed. To take advantage of some of these suggestions, retailers will need to add hi-speed wireless internet connections in their stores. The cost of doing so will have to be weighed against the potential revenue opportunities that these types of capabilities would drive, as would the cost of the devices themselves. I believe it will make sense for some types of retailers and not for others, and the numbers will no doubt depend on the individual retailer’s circumstances. I know that’s not an exact answers, but I’m not sure there’s a generic answer that covers all situations.

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Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell

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