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GUEST COMMENT Supporting shopping: ‘physical and online stores are not enough’

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Physical and online stores are not enough. Although we might be stating the obvious, we’re still not seeing enough examples of organisations looking beyond the high street and online to show that this simple advice is sinking in. The consumer has changed. No longer is the popular adage “the customer is always right” entirely relevant. Instead the new retailing motto of “the customer is king” is prevailing.

This is the next step in the evolution of the relationship between the buyer and the seller. It can be directly tied back to two things: the internet and mobile. The rise of internet technology has gifted the consumer a key that controls corporations. They are able to browse competitors and, with the growth of social media, now have a direct line into a business. They can complain, ask questions and make their voices heard, which, only a few years ago, would have had executives everywhere running scared.

This has been amplified even further by mobile. People’s phones are with them constantly, so they can contact companies on the spur of a moment and price checking or showrooming (checking online prices while in a store) is now an instantaneous activity. Mobile has shifted the playing field.

The change shouldn’t be viewed as a negative though. Instead, organisations must see this changing relationship and the evolution of technology as a boon for their company. You can now get closer to the customer than ever before, moving the potential of your brand from being an acquaintance to almost a family member.

The shopping symbiosis

The rise of the internet and mobile caused a sea change for retailers. Think of it this way, how many of the most popular retailers from 30 years ago are still leaders? You would struggle to count them on one hand.

A huge number of new online companies were founded, driven by low start-up costs and a potential audience previously unimaginable. This led to companies like Amazon becoming booming behemoths, but it also meant retailers had to re-evaluate their business models.

At first, there was no magic formula for creating an engaging online experience. Retailers simply translated their physical stores into online ones. Instead of aisles, there were drop-down menus. There was little understanding of the particular benefits of the online format, companies created sites as it seemed to be the thing to do. Simply put, one mirrored the other.

This has now changed. Companies have come to terms with what customers desire from an online shopping experience, but now with mobile the goal posts are being moved once again.

Figures are the foundation

Despite how much it’s talked about, the mobile and app market for retailers is still only in its infancy. The Centre Of Retail Research expected online retail sales to reach £52.25bn in the UK last year, equating to 15.2% of all retail sales in the UK. While this might not seem too impressive, consider the fact that this is a 16.2% increase on 2014, when the total stood at £44.97bn.

UK consumers are well documented as the most frequent online shoppers in Europe. Alongside this, m-commerce is growing quickly – according to the IMRG, more than half of all online sales took place via a mobile device in the final quarter of last year. Competition continues to be fierce and the market overcrowded, making it harder for one company to stand out from the rest. Mobile is growing, but there is a strong chance that the perfect formula for a mobile shopping experience has not been found yet. Once this has been perfected, it is likely that shopping on smartphones, rather than online, will become the norm. But this does not tell the whole story.

Ever expanding environment

The arrival of the smartphone and its proliferation has brought with it a huge revolution to the retail sector. Today’s mobile phones offer the potential to get closer to the customer than ever before. While still providing the functionality and features of a desktop and even a laptop shopping experience, a mobile phone and its apps are with a customer every moment of the day, giving retailers a more direct channel to their target audience. While, for the customer, a smartphone app can also offer a completely different shopping experience.

Apps can provide visuals, sounds, product advice, other customer reviews, but all of this at a time most convenient to the shopper – at any time of the day and at any location that they so choose to shop. Plus, it has been shown that interacting with a screen through the touch of a finger increases not only the convenience, but also provides the impression of a more intimate experience, which retailers are starting to realise. It is no longer consumers wanting to simply purchase items through their mobile, they actually desire it more.

The mobile app has become a representation of the brand itself. People’s views of a retailer are intrinsically shaped by how the app appears and functions. Research by Saint Joseph’s University revealed that grocery apps can help build customer loyalty and this is true of any retailer, not just grocers.

Selling items through an app is now expected. It is part of a basic service that shoppers demand from their retailers, almost on par with pictures and prices of products. To really connect and grow a relationship with a customer, brands need to stand out. They need to offer a service that no one else does and apps, with their intimate characteristics, are the ideal vehicle through which to do so.

Dealing with data

There are a number of retailers who have already started on this journey. Dominos have seen success through their approach to apps, while Marks & Spencer’s put forward an Apple Watch app that allows customers to tick off ingredients as they shop. Asda also performs strongly with its mobile app, which includes a barcode scanner and a store finder. Perhaps simpler than the other two, but it delivers exactly what the consumer wants.

So, how do you decide what should separate your app from your competitors? The answer is data. It is vital to understand precisely what your customers want by analysing m-commerce trends around user behaviour, competitor performance, customer reviews, to name a few indicators. For example, if you sell garden equipment, learn what your consumers’ want from that shopping experience, be that equipment guides, reviews etc. Perhaps even, a virtual reality function that allows them to see what structures or plants would look like in their garden? Information and innovation are key to meeting the needs of today’s mobile app shopper.

In the modern world, the consumer has become accustomed to a certain level of service. They assume that they can now purchase items using the method most convenient to them. The evolvement of mobile technology has opened up a perfect channel through which to create stronger relationships between the merchant and shopper: apps. Residing on people’s phones, which are carried everywhere, today apps give retailers the ability to become an active, rather than passive, part of their lives – enabling them to send them personalised offers and recommendations. To survive in the future, the storefront must be expanded. Retail is no longer solely about selling, instead it’s about relationships.

Bertrand Salord is senior director marketing, EMEAR at App Annie

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