Smartphones have become ubiquitous at a time when brick-and-mortar retail outlets are on the decline, and that boosts the profile for mobile apps to harness new retail momentum. According to Forrester, nearly 40 percent of consumers now have at least one retail app on their smartphones, while more than 25 percent carry three to five retail apps on their screens. But the success of clicks-and-mortar is not about having just any old app for your fashion, furniture, housewares or variety marketplace. It's about offering the right kind of app – the one that people want, need and ultimately keep on their phones.
Some retail apps function primarily as informational brochures or corporate identity campaigns or otherwise act as mobile versions of the company website. That is not an optimal approach.
A retail app should inform, inspire, communicate and be a top-notch e-commerce vehicle. Your mobile app is just one aspect of a multi-pronged strategy to promote and generate profits for your business, while coexisting with and supplementing your website, and offering customers a valuable, personalized shopping experience.
Here are some tips on how to approach creating and implementing the ideal mobile retail app.
1. Develop a mobile app.
It's obvious, but worth mentioning: Absolutely develop a cross-platform (iOS and Android) mobile app for your retail outlet or chain of stores. Whatever your business concentration – fashion, restaurant, housewares, pharmacy – an app that facilitates customer communications and transactions, if executed effectively, is bound to boost traffic and profits and inspire customer loyalty.
Don't hesitate to benefit from one of the most popular technologies of the online era to enhance in-store and online shopping.
2. Make optimal use of smartphone tech.
Your app should leverage the capabilities of the latest device hardware and software. Your iPhone and Android app should take advantage of gestures, multi-touch, voice commands and artificial intelligence features.
Don't go overboard. Ditch gimmicky, glitchy features that add no value or are unreliable in practice. Exercise caution when including certain gestures, like shaking the phone to expedite or clear a command.
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3. Employ the latest software techniques.
Mobile apps are marvels of engineering genius that can be adapted for the retail marketplace. Consider using the smartphone's camera for visual product search or beacon technology to offer coupons and alerts to shoppers while they are in your store. Forward-thinking customers – the ones you want – are interested in apps that employ artificial intelligence and augmented reality to teach about products and demonstrate their use. Chatbots can offer tailored advice, suggestions and personalization features.
Don't assume everyone is on board with automated elements. Always make such features voluntary, with informed participation, and give customers a way to opt out.
4. Analyze the customer experience.
Your customers want to keep your app on their phones, so give them a good reason to do that. Periodically analyze the effectiveness of your app's interface and content, and update it often. Review your user stats to determine the strongest and weakest aspects of your app and make appropriate adjustments to keep it lean and fresh. Solicit feedback from customers to determine what features to include and how to solve problems, but keep your questions brief and on point.
Don't let your app languish; respond to complaints and squash bugs promptly.
5. Design your app for both in-store and online functionality.
Your app should coordinate a fluid customer experience where in-store and online purchasing and customer service work together. Consider instituting real-time inventory and in-store pickup services. Orders placed via the website should be available for viewing in your app with consistent pricing and content details. Don't make customers jump back and forth between your app and other mobile apps such as Google Maps or your own mobile website.
Don't force customers to exit your app in order to make a purchase or find your location.
6. Reward loyal customers.
In addition to improving customer service and personalization, reward repeat customers with coupons and special deals to engage and encourage them to shop at your physical store. To counter competition from the likes of Amazon, offer valuable extras like loyalty programs, rewards for using the app, subscription services, discounts and accelerated shipping. Consider that Amazon, famous for revolutionizing online retailing, has entered the brick-and-mortar realm with its new Amazon Go checkout-free store.
Don't pressure anyone to join a loyalty or reward program in order to use your app. All customer participation must be voluntary with no strings attached.
7. Include fun social features.
Make shopping at your store an interactive or even social event by involving customers in creating and using original content or sharing experiences with other customers via the app or over social networks. Make your app a social shopping platform by integrating blog, how-to, informational, audio and video content with e-commerce.
Don't push customers to use social features, as many people prefer to shop in private without distractions.
8. Design for convenience.
Customers should be able to easily and immediately browse, search and view products, recommendations, new releases, and product categories via your mobile app. Use the back button, search function and sort filters. Keep customers logged in or store credit card information so they don't have to repeatedly punch in numbers and passwords. Security is a concern, but shoppers generally take responsibility for protecting their phones, especially if they are using them in public for e-commerce.
Don't create artificial barriers to using your app, such as finding locations and news flashes advertising the latest sale.
9. Use notifications judiciously.
Notifications and location services ideally should focus on the newest and most relevant items like sale announcements or geo-targeted offers. Experiment with notification content and frequency to find the right balance for your customers.
Don't overplay your hand, because it's easy to seem intrusive. Implementation should be measured, because annoyance thresholds vary widely.
10. Beef up privacy and security.
Security issues have emerged as the largest barriers to retail app acceptance and use. Despite the attraction of retailers to using technology to learn customer preferences based on browsing or buying history, the vast proliferation of online hacking has made customers increasingly sensitive to how their information is being used and protected. Best practices and updated technologies are critical to gaining and maintaining the trust of shoppers of all ages.
Don't monetize your customer base by sharing private information with third parties without permission or gathering unnecessary information. Customers want to know that their information is safe and used only in the context that they have specifically approved.
The wave of the future
In today's marketplace, a strong, purposeful retail app that emphasizes speed, convenience, and personalized content is a necessity. Ideally, your app will function as an enhancement to your website and your physical space, offering a richer overall experience and fostering a good relationship between you and your customers by meeting their needs.
Retailers should create apps if they don't already have them or upgrade the ones they do have to take advantage of the latest hardware and software technologies. Retailers need to step up their game in terms of loyalty, rewards and personalization while also using their apps to make in-store shopping more convenient. But all that will be meaningless unless businesses ensure – and reassure customers – that their information is safe and private.