The nuisance of unsolicited "spam" e-mails could soon spread to mobile phones on a grand scale as the UK retail sector gears itself up to integrate a wave of new technology, experts in Birmingham have warned.
They say that a simple walk down the high street could soon be characterised by a stream of text messages - advising of special retail offers and product launches - bombarding the pedestrian's handset.
Retail specialists at KPMG believe that the mobile phone is the next obvious outlet for retail advertising. However, they are urging the key players to make sure that safeguards are in place to avoid the nuisance factor before it drives customers away.
Simon Purkess, retail partner at KPMG in Birmingham, said: "The technology currently being utilised by UK retailers is developing at a rapid rate.
"That technology is now converging with the latest developments in the telecoms sector, opening up so many new promotional avenues.
"For example, the technology to identify when a mobile phone handset is nearby could be linked by retailers to their latest smart card technology and the related customer data.
"If a retailer can link that phone to the customer's buying habits, it is then a simple step for an auto-mated process to send a message to that phone, advising the owner of the latest in-store special offers which they should find of most interest."
He added: "If the second part of that equation sounds far-fetched, then you only have to consider what the recently trialled Chip and Pin technology is leading us towards.
"In the stores of the future, information is at the heart of everything which is being developed.
"Personal data, buying habits, shopping lists and payments could all end up being collated via a smart card.
"So long as a mobile phone number is included in the personal data, retailers will have everything they need to target consumers with promotional messages.
"With this in mind, asking for a mobile number upon completion of a transaction or when applying for a new card could become as commonplace as getting a date of birth or home address."
While KPMG believes that the convergence of such technology will be beneficial for consumers, retailers and telecom firms alike, the firm is urging caution over the inevitable rush to get the technology on to the street.
If handled incorrectly, KPMG sees a nightmare scenario of an average consumer walking down a high street at lunchtime and being deluged with text messages.
With their inbox groaning at the seams, the increasingly irate consumer inevitably turns their phone off, blaming various retailers for the inconvenience.
Retail text messages would have then succeeded the spam e-mail as the bane of people's lives.
But KPMG says all of this could be avoided if the service providers
- retailers and telecom firms - work together to ensure that the consumer is actually the one in control; filtering messages or even being allowed to disable or enable the service at the press of a button.
The benefits of the new system are obvious though, especially to today's emerging breed of cash-rich, time-poor consumers.
A brief one hour lunchtime shopping trip could be made much more effective, for example, if a quick check of the mobile phone instantly highlighted which stores were running promotions at that particular time.
With picture technology improving all the time, mobiles could also carry pictures of key sale items.
Most importantly, the offers would be tailored to the individual customer as recent purchases would have allowed the retailer to build up a profile of their buying habits.
The customer would benefit by making better use of their time, the retailer would be able to make the most of the spontaneous impulse purchasing which such messages would prompt while the telecoms firms would benefit from being able to offer the platform for the service.
Mr Purkess said: "Quite simply, this should be a win-win situation for all concerned unless businesses rush into this, get it wrong and then lose the public's buy-in for good.
"Businesses must ensure that the customer is able to exercise choice over this sort of service at all times; not just a yes or no at the start of their phone or smart card contract but an ability to turn the service off and on at will. Extensive trialling will have to take place to guarantee consumer acceptances."