An App Isn't Enough: You Need to Be Mobile-First
After announcing that it would close 138 underperforming stores, J.C. Penney got good news. Customers who had been missing for years began returning to those stores, and as a result, sales and traffic were better than expected. What drove customers back to the store isn’t clear — probably some combination of bargain hunting and nostalgia — but one thing that certainly wasn’t a factor was mobile. Despite a reasonably popular app, J.C. Penney didn’t have a mobile-first strategy necessary to connect with today’s consumers.
An App is the Customer Experience Starting Point
Customer experience is key to reversing retail’s downward spiral because a stellar in-store experience is what keeps customers coming back. In that sense, the fundamentals of retail still apply. However, those fundamentals need to be adapted for the mobile age. Amazon.com and Wal-Mart provide two good examples.
Amazon's brick-and-mortar locations are a physical extension of the company’s online presence. Customers check in with their phones, make selections and leave without the hassle of checkout lines because payments are seamlessly tied to the phone. Equally important, those transactions are accessible when the customer switches to their desktop or tablet.
Wal-Mart comes at the challenge from a different direction because it doesn’t have the luxury of starting brick-and-mortar from scratch. By acquiring e-commerce players like Jet.com and ModCloth, Wal-Mart not only broadened its demographic reach, it put data at the center of the customer experience. That data pays dividends, not just in terms of offering coupons and seamless pickup/return options, but in real personalization.
When a brick-and-mortar retailer knows its customers as well as its e-commerce counterparts do, it can leverage data in ways that make coming to the store preferable to shopping online. Using a customer’s sales history, for example, Wal-Mart could customize clothing suggestions that take into account items the customer already has in their wardrobe. Equally plausible, the budget-conscious Wal-Mart could give customers the option of setting a budget inside the app, pushing a running tally to their phones and routing them to appropriate in-store offers.
Make the Experience Special and Specific to Your Brand
Cosmetics retailer Sephora pioneered an “assisted self-serve” customer experience that encourages shoppers to sample liberally. Today, Sephora’s mobile-first strategy drives customers into the store through a combination of deals and personalization.
Customers who use Sephora's app get a special in-store discount – a strong incentive for a visit. Once in-store, customers accumulate loyalty rewards in the app, while staff can access their purchase history to tailor recommendations. And if a customer forgets the name of a product, all she needs to do is visit a Sephora store with her phone and ask. Any mobile-first strategy could include those features, but features aren’t the same as an experience. Personalization at Sephora feels different than at a department store because the cosmetics retailer means something specific and special to customers. The point of a mobile-first strategy isn’t to overload your customers with new bells and whistles, it’s to take what’s already great about your store and make it better.
Will Customers Tolerate Another App?
An app provides the retailer with a means of exceeding the online experience. But the customer has to use the app — a daunting proposition considering that consumers spend more time using apps, but use few apps overall. Even more alarming, consumers are most likely to use apps for audio, social networking, gaming, videos and messaging, according to eMarketer.
There’s a lesson in that consumer behavior for retailers: apps must be sticky. Whatever core value proposition drives customers to your stores (e.g., bargains, product selection, helpful staff) needs to be embodied and improved upon within your app. That means different things to different retail brands, but for all retailers the message is the same: go mobile-first, or go home.
Galia Reichenstein is the chief operating officer and head of sales at Taptica, a mobile advertising technology company.