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GUEST OPINION How apps make savvy shoppers and happy retailers

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In the super competitive retail environment it has never been more important to engage and delight shoppers. And Apps are the ideal way to make that happen. Paul Barnes, Territory Director Northern Europe and Middle East, at AppAnnie explains

A retailer doesn’t just have to find a niche, build a brand and stock great products, they also have to stay up-to-date with consumers’ desires and habits. This used to be simpler. The storefront was once the place where individuals interacted with your brand, but since the boom of e-commerce, mobile has become the first place you meet them.

Retailers are faced with this conundrum though: focusing on an app or the mobile web? It might seem like a tricky one to answer, but let’s look at the cold, hard facts. By the year 2021, the number of smartphones will double to 6.3 billion. Already, in 2017, over 85% of time spent on mobile is spent in apps. Impressive, but does this transfer to retail?

Over the past 12 months, total time spent in online-first retailers’ Android apps increased by over 50%. Bricks and clicks** companies? By nearly 40%. (In fact, this is something that has been particularly successful in South Korea). More importantly, mcommerce is forecast to reach $6.3 Trillion* by 2021.

The message for retailers is clear: people’s fingertips have spoken and they have resoundingly chosen apps.

Receiving this message is all good and well, but – as a retailer – you need to know what apps can actually offer your business. In other words, how can they improve your relationship with customers and, ultimately, your bottom line?

Easy to use

Let’s start simply. Have you ever opened a site on a mobile browser and found it impossible to navigate? The page an odd size? Images and video unresponsive? Although improvements have been made on this front, accessing the web via mobile can still deliver some clunky experiences. An app on the other hand is far more likely to work as its creator intended.

When you consider that the mobile experience, app or web, is the lens in which a customer will view your business, making it slick and seamless is of the utmost importance.

The personal touch

Now, what can apps actually do? Compared to the mobile web, apps offer a far more personal way to engage with each and every customer. When they are using the technology, you are able to see their every movement and click. How much time are individuals spending on certain sections? Is there a part of the purchasing journey where lots of customers stop? Is there a service that is proving popular? All of this can be understood and analysed, with the goal of providing a brilliant experience.

This information can then be used to create a specially crafted approach. Following best practices for retail apps, and, in order to gain trust and long-term customers, it is vital for retailers to respect app users, not to bombard them with ads and let them choose the settings that suit them best.

This can be expanded even further, especially taking geolocation into account. Let’s consider a clothing retailer. If someone opens your app in London and Sydney simultaneously – would they want to be confronted with the same items? While the former might be looking at raincoats, the latter is more likely to be on the hunt for sunglasses. With apps, you can easily and inexpensively customise what people see based on where they are in the world.

Companies are already implementing impressive functions using this technology. For example, McDonald’s has been rolling out a new feature in in its app that allows customers to place orders. With this geo-fencing function, food is only prepared when a customer is near the restaurant, so it’s hot and fresh out the kitchen when picked up. It might seem like a small change, but it will make a big difference to many; many of these new features give users back invaluable pockets of time and, as we get increasingly accustomed to them, consumers begin to expect this level of efficiency and convenience.

Shortcut to sales

It is this expectation of ease and seamlessness that makes apps such an attractive prospect for shoppers. With payment processes in apps becoming streamlined – just think of the ongoing integration with the proprietary payment systems of Apple, Android and Amazon – making purchases with the technology is easier than ever.

Another indicator for the strength of in-app payments is the upcoming PSD2 directive. In summary, this will require payment service providers to use stronger user authentication methods – making in-app payments more secure than ever. With there still being a (admittedly, rapidly reducing) segment of the populace who are uncertain about online and app payments, regulation improvements like this can put consumers at ease. Additionally, If you are thinking of accepting payments in-app, but are uncertain how safe they are, the tighter security PSD2 will bring will help allay any residual fears.

For consumers, the days of peering into a small screen and typing out a card number, billing and delivery addresses are coming to a close. Soon, in-app payments will be as simple as a thumbprint and secure as a bank vault.

Learning through loyalty

Apps can provide a window into a consumer’s life, yet how you can use this data to make the customer’s experience slick and powerful is almost bottomless. Let’s return to the same clothing retailer as earlier. Imagine they have not bought anything from you before, but have been browsing hats. On the mobile web, tracking this can be tough, but acting on it is harder. With an app? If one of those items goes on sale, it can send a notification (either OS-wide or within the app itself), helping turn a prospect into a customer.

Apps can not only help convert a browser into a buyer, they can also function as recommendation engines. Let’s say the same customer has been using your app. Aside from the hat, they have purchased some boots and a scarf. An app can take this into account and suggest items that are similar, such as an umbrella.

This sort of service is incredibly difficult to deliver on the mobile web, but, if mastered correctly, makes the customer feel valued, as well as positive about your brand. Mobile apps, by their very design, nurture loyalty by increasingly adding more value to the user and consequently increasing lifetime value. The more time spent, the more personalised the app becomes, and as a result is more useful and relevant.

Don’t forget the web

Despite the huge positives an app can bring, it is vital not to forget the importance of the mobile web. Think of it this way: an app is a mansion filled with a wide variety of rooms, while the mobile web is its entrance and hallway. Often, the very first interaction a customer will have with you will be a glance on a mobile browser, meaning they get a feel for what your brand is about. After this though, an app can deliver so much more. The critical thing to understand is that you must focus on successfully integrating both channels. With more time on mobile spent in apps rather than on the mobile web, the two platforms should never be siloed.

The litmus test to see whether your brand really needs an app is to ask this simple question: “Would your brand benefit from a loyalty scheme of any kind?”

If your brand is, for any reason, completely unaffected by the loyalty of its customers, then it’s fair to say that an app may not be vital to its success. However, thinking of a brand that falls into the sub group is a challenge by itself; the overwhelming majority of brands benefit – if not rely- on the increased engagement and return custom of its consumer base.

Ultimately, when you compare retail apps to the mobile web, it is like comparing a 3D video game to a 2D one. Yes, there is nothing inherently bad about the latter, but the former has so much more potential, power and poise. The rise of mobile in recent years has meant that a consumer’s experience of your brand on the platform colours their entire perception, effectively becoming the store-front of today. Apps still have a lot of growth to do, so the sooner you invest in yours, the quicker you can reap the rewards.

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