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Smart Shopping

Author: Judith M. Wilson
November, 2015 Issue

Innovation and technology are changing the world of commerce, creating new opportunities for retailers and shoppers alike.


Back in the day, no one imagined telephones would become shopping basics. The thought of toting phones in our pockets and using them to pay for a cup of coffee at the local café would have seemed like science fiction. Yet today, ways to make everyday transactions are readily available on communications devices that go way beyond making personal calls, and they’re a reflection of rapidly changing tastes, and the trends that emerge with them, to create a new retail landscape

On the phone

Marin banker Jeremy DeLaRosa uses his iPhone every day when he stops at Starbucks to pick up a cup of brew on his way to work. He says people often think he’s playing with his phone, when in fact, he’s using it to pay for his order and manage his account—he finds it simpler than pulling out his wallet. “It’s one less card to keep. Now you pretty much put all the major cards on your phone,” he says, adding that the only other things he carries are an emergency credit or debit card and his driver’s license.

Phones with a variety of apps have become mobile wallets that make life easier for many people, but they’re also useful marketing tools for retailers seeking ways to reach consumers with messages to keep them engaged. When Macy’s held a one-day fund-raiser for March of Dimes in the summer, shoppers entering the store with the Macy’s app on their smartphones got a message saying they’d receive a discount on most items if they made a $5 donation to March of Dimes, and they learned how they could take advantage of the offer immediately by making the donation on the spot—using their phones.

In another scenario, customers with an Apple app on their phones receive a message telling them about Easy Pay when they step into an Apple Store. It explains that, for lower-priced products such as accessories, they can use their phones to scan an item’s bar code and see ratings, reviews, tech specs and frequent questions. When they decide to make a purchase, they can use Apple Pay or sign in with their Apple ID to check themselves out and then be on their way. They never have to speak to a sales associate or stand in line. It’s entirely do-it-yourself.

To give customers such opportunities, Macy’s and Apple are using beacons, a growing trend in mobile technology that uses sensors in shelves, signs and product displays in stores. Usually imperceptible to the inexperienced eye, the beacons send out low-energy Bluetooth signals that interact with individual mobile devices to communicate with their owners directly, thus personalizing the shopping experience.

On the move

It took just 56 minutes for Marin County resident Kris Nelson-Carlyle to sell 40 handbags by taking photos with her phone and sending out texts while she was sitting on a beach in Mexico. It was the inspiration for her new business, Bolsa Vida, which sells hand-tooled, handcrafted handbags that she designs, has made by artisans in Mexico and then sells in the United States at pop-ups in established traditional stores. “Mobile boutiques are hot,” she says.

Before embarking on her new venture, Nelson-Carlyle spent 15 years doing interior design for more than 600 high-end custom homes that her husband’s construction company had built in southern Marin County and San Francisco. However, she was looking for something new and, on a trip to Puerto Vallarta, she bought two handbags in what turned out to be a serendipitous move. On the return flight, a woman on the plane approached her to say she coveted the bags and persuaded her to sell them. A few weeks later, Nelson-Carlyle returned to Mexico and purchased seven more bags. This time, people approached her while she was in line at the airport, and she quickly sold every one. Next came her experience selling the 40 bags by text, and it became clear she was onto something. “My mother and husband said, ‘If you don’t pursue this, you’re crazy,’” she says.

Entering a new field was a challenge, but she’d been styling for her girlfriends since she was 12, so she felt comfortable with fashion accessories, and “I did a lot of research. I thought I had to have a retail store,” she says. She looked at vacant buildings and considered an online store, but she wanted to do her due diligence before making a commitment to a permanent location and opted to do one year of pop-ups so she’d have time to learn the business and define its demographic, which, as it turns out, is ageless. “There’s a style for everyone; there’s a price point for everyone,” she says, adding that she’s able to accept credit card payments using Square, a small credit card reader that attaches to a smartphone, making portability possible.

She officially launched Bolsa Vida on May 2, 2015, with a party and sale in the backyard of her mother’s home in San Rafael, where she once again sold everything. From there, the business took off. In recent months, she’s had multiple two-day weekend boutiques at West Elm in Strawberry Village in Mill Valley; she was also lining up appearances at wine and film festivals and is looking at pop-ups at ski resorts. “I’m just kind of creating this as I go,” she says. Her West Elm pop-ups have been so successful the retail chain has invited her to host them in all its California stores.

She has the requisite online presence including Pinterest, which has a partnership with Shopify, a platform for immediate e-commerce (aka “click to buy”). But “Women are visual. They need to see, touch and feel. That’s why mobile boutiques are successful. We women, we love our handbags,” she says. “At the end of the first year, I’m leaning to one store,” she adds, but meanwhile, she’s getting an education in how to get a product to the marketplace and run a mobile boutique. “I only have to set up with products and signage,” she says. “The pop-ups have been amazing.”

At West Elm, which is part of Williams-Sonoma, Inc., pop-ups are ongoing, with at least one per month. “It’s been a trend for the last couple of years,” says Katherine Kelleher, manager of the Mill Valley store. “Our philosophy is to provide a forum for the community to connect.” Thus, they’ve hosted a variety of pop-ups—one for pets, an artist with letterpress cards, a photographer and a vendor with succulents, among others. They’re even considering providing a meeting place for a knitting group. “Everything we do is local. We don’t ever charge,” says Kelleher, who explains West Elm wants to be a good citizen and give people a chance to see something they might not be able to otherwise, in addition to providing local artisans with a great opportunity. She adds that local artisans are always welcome to approach the store for consideration as pop-ups.

On the grapevine

Much of the promotion for mobile boutiques is through social media, and Nelson-Carlyle places ads to promote Bolsa Vida on Facebook and Twitter as well as in a couple of print publications. She creates ads for the host stores to use on their websites and Facebook pages as well. In addition, she uses social media to spread the word about upcoming pop-ups, and Nextdoor, a neighborhood networking site, has proved to be successful. “We get so much activity from Nextdoor,” she says. “The process is really fun.”

Bolsa Vida and West Elm also use Instagram, a site where retailers can post photos and videos for use on social media sites, giving them a way to show current styles and trends, such as this year’s color palette, which features blush as the popular hue. “Instagram is successful,” says Kelleher.

Onward and upward

Banking, inevitably, is part of the mobile revolution. “People used to have to go to a financial institution branch to do their transactions,” says Brett Martinez, president and CEO of Redwood Credit Union, which has 250,000 members in seven North Bay counties and San Francisco. Now, with the advent of mobile banking, they can conduct it anytime, anywhere. “Our members have adapted to it well.” he says.

“It changes the dynamic of a branch,” he adds, explaining that RCU’s branches are moving from a focus on teller transactions to more collaborative consultation services that educate and advise members. To that end, the credit union has been redesigning and aligning the look and feel of its branches, starting with one in Rohnert Park. “The branch is less focused on the teller line. It’s a pretty major transition. It was a gut and redo,” says Martinez.

Among the features, the branch has iPads and technology that members can pick up and use, perhaps to learn the ins and outs of mobile banking, and staff members are available to help members with a variety of services, such as loans and insurance. For everyday transactions, however, electronic services such as mobile check deposit mean that people no longer have to schedule their lives around going to a branch. “We’re giving people a part of their life back,” says Martinez. He adds that they can also use Apple Pay when they’re shopping. “If a retailer has it, members have access,” says Martinez, who adds that RCU was the first financial institution in the North Bay region to adopt Apple Pay, which he considers the most secure method.

Much of the success of the transition to new trends is due to RCU’s efforts to teach members how to use the technology and make them feel comfortable and secure with it. “Our business is to educate and help people. We’ve been really focused on teaching,” says Martinez, explaining that tutorials on how to use online and mobile banking are being made available online, and devices are available in the branches so staff members can give members one-to-one instruction. “We don’t expect everyone to learn it on their own. Some will; others may need more help,” he says, pointing out that people have different learning styles, and RCU offers several options, letting people learn when and where they want, whether it’s at midnight or at the kitchen table. “The tutorial is just a different way,” he says.

In addition, tutorials and tips as well as testimonials and ads are available on a YouTube channel that RCU created several years ago to offer videos that Martinez describes as “short, sweet and educational.” The credit union is also active on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Social consciousness

Consumers like knowing that the businesses they patronize contribute to good causes, and while it’s a trend that makes good business sense, it often comes from a desire to have a connection with the community that’s part of a business’ philosophy or a deeply held personal belief. It’s one of the pillars of member-owned Redwood Credit Union, which contributes to United Way and SchoolsRule Marin, as well as donating to a substantial number of nonprofit events and giving thousands of volunteer hours to a variety of community activities.

Nelson-Carlyle is an animal activist, and although her bags are made of cowhide, she buys remnants after the other parts have gone for food, ensuring that all parts of the animal are used. She also decided at the outset, “I’m going to raise money for doggies.” She gives 10 percent of all sales to the SPCAs in San Francisco and Puerto Vallarta. Sometimes, she finds new homes for dogs from Mexico. She observes that, in the Third World, people are struggling to feed their families, and the dogs get left behind. Visitors to her pop-ups see that she’s saving dogs, and “The response has been amazing, phenomenal,” she says.

“People love that we’re doing something good, we’re giving back. Our goal is to encourage other companies to also donate a portion of their proceeds to the charity of their choice.”

The world is changing, but from primitive marketplaces to today’s high-tech hubs, commerce has always been a dynamic, ever-changing endeavor, as the innovators in our midst seek new ways to make the retail experience rewarding and fun. Ultimately, it’s all about people and making their lives better. It’s an exciting journey and, as it continues, we’re sure to find more surprises just around the corner.


Spark—Discover Nearby, from Spectafy, Inc., lets users in Healdsburg who download the app onto their smartphones share photographs and news about what’s happening in the world around them in real time—whether it’s a street fair, a great deal or a fine wine they’re sipping in a local tasting room—giving others a chance to take advantage of their finds too.

Retailers can post information as well. Carla Howell, executive director of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, reports that several local businesses are using it to spread the news about their offerings and special events.

Café Lucia’s post to entice customers on a hot summer’s day was this: “Stop in for our passion fruit pomegranate sangría. We have two words for it: Yes, please!” The restaurant in downtown Healdsburg also used Spark to alert people in the area to a beer festival in the plaza and share a photo of fresh Portuguese pastries.

Going Mobile

Mobile banking services are popular with every age group. Brett Martinez, president and CEO of Redwood Credit Union, reports the following statistics to show that use is across the board among RCU’s mobile banking users:

Millennials      35 percent

Generation X  40 percent

Over age 50     25 percent

Redwood Credit Union has 142,000 members who use online banking, and 82,000 also use mobile banking. RCU offers a variety of strategies for people to learn about mobile banking, and Martinez says use is growing significantly, so the number is sure to climb.

Feeling secure

Jeremy DeLaRosa uses his phone for mobile banking and feels comfortable doing it because of the levels of security. “First and foremost, you must have the user name,” he says. The next step is the password. Third, the user has to answer one of the questions he or she gave as answers to personal questions when setting up online banking, which is a prerequisite for mobile banking. If an unauthorized person tries to get into an account and gets the password wrong three times, [most major banks] it locks all online access to the account, keeping it secure. “I call it the three strikes rule,” says DeLaRosa.

DeLaRosa also uses his phone for PayPal and says he especially likes the feature that asks for his thumbprint to verify his identify before letting him access his account. “It’s like double added security,” he says.




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