These days, retailers are involved in an arms race for convenience and value. While they're all constantly trying to adapt to survive, not all stores are keeping up with new technological developments.
More than two-thirds of U.S. consumers have a smartphone, and amongst younger consumers that number is even higher at nearly 75 percent. Apps and mobile sites are therefore becoming important marketing tools — and sales devices. This new generation of shoppers have high expectations, short attention spans, and provide instant digital feedback via social media. This can be negative as well as positive, and is quickly distributed to a wide group of followers.
Retailers, however, haven’t kept up with the trend. Although many now have a downloadable app, the level of functionality is often low. The apps act more as catalogs than retail objects. The number of people expecting to be able to shop while out and about is increasing year-on-year. However, this isn't reflected in the apps that are on offer — some websites are also behind the times, being remarkably mobile unfriendly.
Apps are evolving from a lightweight, low-function "bonus" to a must-have, heavyweight retail element.
How Can a Store Ensure its App is Appealing to Consumers?
Not all apps are created equal, and many aren't as good as they should be. The primary reason smartphone users will download an app is for added convenience. If the app makes the act of shopping more complicated or more expensive, and doesn’t reflect shopper behavior, it's worse than useless.
Retailers looking to develop an app could do worse than carrying out behavior research amongst their existing customers to find out exactly what they need. The most positively received functions make shopping quicker, easier and cheaper, also making returns simpler in many cases. A well-designed app will help to nurture impulse buying by making products appealing, and designing the buying process to be quick and easy.
For apparel retailers, flexibility and high functionality are the key. A shopper should be able to pre-order an out-of-stock item, collect it in-store when it's back in stock and then, if it's unsuitable, return it in-store. The ability to stock check is also crucial. This functionality encourages purchases. With the knowledge that there are only a few of a product left, the behavior of shoppers in the retail environment is well known: shoppers will often take the leap and buy.
The key thing to remember is that shoppers abandon apps that don’t work in favor of apps that do.
What Do Shoppers Use Apps For?
Apps are used for a wide variety of functions. As well as making purchases, shoppers can browse and do research on the products they're thinking of buying.
Consumers appreciate the ability to link coupons and discounts with their app to a store's loyalty program. For example, with many restaurant apps it's possible to pay via the app, earning rewards as you eat. Customers are alerted when a new deal comes in, which encourages them to visit the restaurant. This helps both the customer and the restaurant. The restaurant gets increased sales and demographic information about their customer, and in return the customer gets discounts and special offers. Food shoppers with specific requirements can also use the app as a filter. For example, a shopper who is lactose intolerant can filter out products containing lactose.
Common Mistakes Retailers Make When Developing Apps
It's easy to make mistakes when developing apps, as the process of building one can be complicated. Some retailers miss out on having a functional shop on their app — users can preview products, but not purchase them. As it adds extra time between seeing a product and buying it, this reduces the likelihood of that customer making a purchase. Every minute between wanting an item and buying it is a chance for the customer to change their mind.
Another issue is keeping the app completely separate from the physical store. App users expect to be able to collect and return app-bought items in-store. Treating the two as separate entities makes their shopping experience less convenient — an experience they're likely to share with friends and co-workers. Keeping your physical store a hub for returns, collections and service helps to make the customer's relationship with you more concrete.
Many stores are avoiding committing to an app, seeing this new development as a temporary fad. That would be a mistake. With the current increase in mobile technology, it's likely that most purchases will eventually be made by phone.
When developing an app, the most important element is security. Most online shoppers are aware of the danger of personal information theft. An app that's known to have security flaws will not only be unpopular, it could damage the entire brand.
Apps Offer Stores a Chance to Collect Customer Data
Connecting with customers via social media can have many benefits, but this should be handled carefully. Some customers can find the level of access you want to their account intrusive.
Having a customer profile allows you to make tailored offers to a shopper, increasing the chances of them making a purchase. By linking with their social media accounts, you can gain access to their demographics, friends and even their current location. As modern consumers rely on one another for brand advice, increasing your standing on social media will increase your prospective audience. By combining loyalty bonuses online and offline, making them usable both in-store and on your app, you can bridge the gap between real and digital.
Apps and mobile marketing are powerful tools, and can greatly increase sales and customer engagement. By ensuring they're well-designed and work smoothly, you can connect with your customers on a whole new digital level.
Phillip Adcock is the founder and managing director of the shopper research agency Shopping Behaviour Xplained Ltd, an organization using psychological consumer insight and retail technology to explain and predict customer behavior.
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