Technology has impacted nearly every aspect of a shopper’s daily life, and retail is no exception. Smartphones have changed the way people shop, empowering consumers to research products, look for discounts and interact with retailers at their convenience without ever setting foot in a store. Some shoppers even brazenly use competitor apps while in-store.
As mobile has matured into one of the most important channels for consumer and retailer interactions, shoppers have become extremely picky about the apps they use and will quickly delete an app that doesn’t meet their needs and yield immediate value.
Why is the Bar So High for Retail Applications?
A successful retail app must provide consumers with something above and beyond what they would otherwise get from just walking into a physical store. This means that an app that's explicitly meant to sell products needs to be both useful and engaging. Unfortunately, building an app that meets these criteria is both extremely expensive and time consuming. Even when a retailer has plenty of money to invest, a high level of creativity is required to create a truly beneficial app — hence the relative scarcity of quality apps.
We’ve all probably downloaded an app only to discover it was clunky and didn’t provide any value. Some of the lowest-rated apps on Android and iOS include McDonald’s, Forever 21, Kohl’s, Michael’s and Ikea. These brands — most of which were born long before the digital age — haven't effectively built their digital strategies to leverage mobile in a way that influences the buying decisions of their customers and enhances their customers’ experiences.
For example, if a consumer uses a clothing store app to check the inventory of a popular item and sees it’s available at a store outside of her usual shopping area, this may drive her to go out of her way to pick it up. However, if she gets to the store and finds that the item is sold out, she's going to be extremely unhappy. Consumers are looking for mobile tools that will save them time and money, not tempt them into wasting it. If a retailer’s mobile app can’t supply a positive experience by being accurate and up-to-date, it can very quickly and easily be written off. In this case, a “Click to Set Aside” button linked to in-store systems could have saved the day … and the customer.
On the positive side, there are some highly successful retail apps that are used daily by millions of people because of what they add to the shopping experience. Think along the lines of Starbucks, REI and Urban Outfitters. While such successful apps provide a brand’s customers with thoughtful features that make the experience valuable and often more enjoyable, these apps often come with a hefty price tag and significant development process.
While not all brands have the resources, creativity and dedication necessary to build sophisticated apps, they nevertheless can learn from the best practices of the bigger players in the mobile retail app market. Here are five best practices that all retailers can consider when putting together a mobile application:
1. Consider gamifying features. Starbucks’ app, which took almost a decade to get to the point where it is today, uses gamification to enhance end-user loyalty. Whether it's the stars collected by users to reach a free item or the seasonal "Starbucks for Life" Monopoly-like game, consumers always have a reason to check the app and see how close they are to reaching a reward. Smaller retailers can consider creating their own loyalty system either tied to an app or the in-store experience. Ultimately, brands want to make customers excited about shopping with them, and fun loyalty initiatives are a great way to do that.
2. Provide real-time offers. Victoria's Secret and H&M are well known for providing their app users with exclusive flash sales and in-store coupons. These impromptu discounts and deals, when received via an app, give customers a feeling of exclusiveness that keeps them returning to take advantage of the discount. Smaller retailers can create a similar experience by leveraging apps like Groupon and LivingSocial to provide potential customers with discounts that they can use within a certain time frame, with the goal of driving repeat visits in the future.
3. Test push notifications to keep users engaged. While most retail apps have some kind of push notifications built in, high-end brands like Kate Spade and Louis Vuitton give users the option to customize their real-time updates to focus on their favorite SKUs. This may include when a favorite item is back in stock or when a new collection becomes available. It’s important not to spam app users with useless information; instead, give them the opportunity to personalize what they want to be “in the know” about. By using this tactic, the brand is out of sight but never out of mind. The app keeps a consistent flow of content going to the user’s phone at their discretion.
4. Use other phone features to enhance the experience. Neiman Marcus leverages a phone's camera to give users the option to snap a picture of a product they like on the street or in-store to then view or purchase similar items via the app. Consumers can also save all of these items to a wish list to go through their finds at a later time. For smaller retailers, if utilizing the camera is too expensive an option, providing a robust inventory search feature can help consumers easily find the clothes they’re looking for at any time.
5. Let users shop with confidence. REI’s app allows customers to pick their favorite brick-and-mortar locations, check product availability, scan barcodes for more information, keep a real-time wish list and read customer reviews. As users navigate the path to purchase, these features give a sense of control by providing the information they're looking for in a timely manner. For smaller retailers, it’s important to think about the steps that will drive customers to do all their research and purchase a product from one retailer. If product availability and reviews are what a retailer’s customers seek most, it’s important to prioritize those features.
These five best practices have made these retail applications and many more a staple on the homepages of iPhones and Android devices internationally. Some businesses may not have the budget or bandwidth to deliver all of these features, but you can get started with some of the above options and take cues from these retail giants to think creatively. In doing so, retailers will see more traffic in-store and online via mobile, and will create lasting relationships with their customers.
Mark Smith is the president of Kitewheel, a cloud-based software provider that orchestrates customer journeys by unifying decision logic across all touchpoints.