For decades, Americans headed to malls to take care of all of their back-to-school (BTS) shopping needs. And many still do — 56 percent of consumers rely on department stores to buy school clothes and supplies during this nearly $53 billion season. However, in this BTS season and in the years to come, retailers need to focus more on the mobile layer of the customer experience. After all, in the last two years, Google mobile searches for “near me” that also include either “can I buy” or “to buy” have jumped 500 percent.
In other words, mobile is now the conduit for both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail. Being on the cutting edge during BTS is increasingly important now that Gen Z is preparing to enter college and millennials are thinking about parent-teacher conferences. These digital natives expect personalized, seamless online-offline retail that revolves around smartphones. Specifically, creating engagement in your mobile app is huge. Consider that, as of early 2019, digital shopping giant Amazon.com averaged approximately 152 million monthly users on mobile web, compared with about 112 million mobile app users. Yet 85 percent of Amazon’s engagement took place in its app vs. 15 percent on the mobile web.
Data-Proof Your Customer Engagement
First-party data, gleaned from customers’ interactions with brand-owned properties, is becoming more crucial for three big reasons. First, Americans average 123 minutes daily on in-app browsing compared to 13 minutes on the web. Businesses need the intelligence from this mobile activity to provide the personalization and seamless customer experience (CX) that today's customers expect. Which brings us to the second reason: Facebook, Google and Amazon will likely increasingly restrict access to their user data as GDPR privacy legislation becomes more common in the U.S. and elsewhere. Thirdly, retailers can future-proof customer engagement by growing first-party data, especially as machine learning systems mature and make push notifications, text messages or emails more anticipatory and effective.
First-party data is central to the ridiculous success of Amazon, which is certainly not the only brand seeing greater in-app engagement compared to other channels. In the last couple of years, J.C. Penney has seen app users purchase 3.5 times more than non-app customers while visiting the legacy retailer’s stores three times as often. More broadly, consumers spent 60 percent more time in shopping apps in 2018 compared with 2016.
Be a ‘First-Party Retailer’
Too many retailers haven’t caught up to this first-party data world after becoming overly reliant on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter earlier this decade. The time has come for first-party retailers.
What does being a first-party retailer look like? First of all, this mind-set views BTS as an opportunity to dramatically lift app downloads for continued use through Halloween, the holidays and beyond. Calls to action should be A/B tested to find out which words and images produce the greatest number of downloads, and then the same testing should be run for conversions or order value. Furthermore, retailers need to be where individuals want to engage with them most, whether it’s text, email or a mobile coupon.
In sum, retailers need to significantly elevate their focus on first-party data and mobile, and this is the perfect time to do it. After all, roughly 45 percent of consumers use their smartphones during BTS shopping. And what you learn now can only help as we head toward the holiday season.
Mike Stone is senior vice president of marketing at Airship, a mobile engagement company.