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GUEST OPINION Beating the app sales downturn with habit-forming technology

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Developments in smartphone technology combined with a continued evolution in social media culture has changed the way consumers engage with their mobile phones and, in turn, retailers. Ross Tuffee, CEO, DOGFI.SH Mobile explains how this shift has meant that many retailers have had to rethink their e-commerce strategies to include a mobile-first approach so that they can deliver a richer shopping experience to their customers.

Mobile apps are a big part of the story. When an app works well, customers have a simple and convenient way to shop. As well as this, retailers can leverage their apps to engage more closely with their customers and maximise sales.

Recent data from IMRG Capgemini revealed that online retail sales maintained a strong start to the year with double-digit growth year-on-year in February. Sales made on smartphones were also impressive with a 57 per cent growth, but on closer inspection it was revealed that during the same period last year, this figure stood at 96 per cent.

In light of this it has led to some suggestions that we might be on the cusp of ‘app fatigue’, whereby retail apps are no longer doing enough to build a lasting and emotive connection between a customer and a brand. As customer demands continue to grow in complexity, apps need to be easy and convenient to use, and should do everything that is required to satisfy a customer’s needs in both the short and long term. For this to happen, retail businesses must rethink the effectiveness of their in-store apps, by understanding the deep-rooted psychology behind customer engagement.

The psychology behind apps

While retailers should already have an understanding of their customers’ habits through their buying data, to boost mobile sales, retailers should exploit habit-forming principles to understand why customers engage with apps in the first place. This will help to reduce the threat of app fatigue and will enable retailers to connect with their customers on an emotional level.

Apps have to earn their place on a customer’s smartphone in the first instance but, unfortunately, many retailers’ apps fail to do enough to suitably enhance the users’ shopping experience. The result is that engagement often fails to meet the expected demand and app fatigue develops, as users begin to cull their least useful apps.

When this is the case, many decide to redesign their apps – making them faster, slicker and what they assume to be ‘user-friendly’ in order to capture consumer interest. However, simply adding a few bells and whistles won’t be effective if the business has failed to examine the deeper qualities that determine customer loyalty. In short, habit-forming technology should be employed as a key part of the app development process, not an after-thought.

Creating positive habits

For retailers, encouraging customers to develop positive purchasing habits should be a key priority. This focus on psychology has been prevalent in high-street stores for years: as an example, different branches of the same store often have an identical or very similar layout, which creates a comforting sense of familiarity with a brand. For apps to emulate this success, similar habit-forming approaches need to be embraced.

Habit-forming technology has been used with success by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat to increase engagement and develop platforms that are built on impulse. Leveraging this technology involves identifying four key hooks, and making the most of them to keep users keep coming back.

  1. Trigger. This first hook involves building an app so it focuses on solving a particular pain-point for a user. In a retail sense, this could be a desire to keep up with the latest fashions, with the app then offering a solution to these issues. When this association is made, customers are likely to pick up the app and use it


  1. Action. Once a trigger has been identified, a retail app should make it easy for users to take action. This could take the form of a user-friendly interface where customers can quickly and conveniently shop for clothing. This is an area where other apps in the consumer world have excelled: scrolling through an Instagram or Twitter feed, for example, is a very straightforward process.

  2. Reward. Without there being a positive end-result for taking action – a reward – an app can fall flat. Users need to know that embracing the app has varied, tangible benefits if they are to come back and use it again. In a retail situation, this could take the form of relatable models within product imagery and the provision of targeted, personalised alerts on new items to enhance the shopping experience and build a connection.

  3. Investment. Once a user has acted and received an appropriate reward, there must be an incentive for consumers to come back and use the app again. Essentially, an app needs to work so effectively and be so user-friendly that it becomes irreplaceable.

These hooks form the vital pillars for any retailer that wants to improve the performance and engagement of its apps. The visual appearance, imagery and branding elements should then be added in to complement this.

Standing up to the competition

While the drop in mobile-based sales figures is unlikely to cause widespread panic in the industry, retailers should not dismiss it all together. Competition is fierce, and businesses should be doing everything in their power to get ahead of their rivals. So if retailers can understand the psychology behind why consumers engage with a product, this will provide a huge opportunity to not only design a product that can support sales growth, but also enable businesses to build relationships with a customer based on more than just satisfying a basic need.

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