Many national brick-and-mortar retailers are going through a tough time right now, to put it mildly.
JCPenney, Kmart, Macy's and Sears are all closing stores in 2017, with Sears recently stating in an SEC filing that it faces “substantial doubt” about its ability to stay in business.
Whilst these headline-grabbing troubles have raised questions about whether we are seeing “the death of retail as we know it,” the industry is hardly on death’s door. Brick-and-mortar retail still represents more than 90 percent of total retail sales. However, to thrive in this rapidly changing environment, retailers need to deliver a seamless online and in-store shopping experience.
Changing Consumer Behaviors
Despite the growth of e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retail remains popular because visiting a physical store allows consumers to see, touch, smell and try things out before buying them. That said, today’s customer has a different set of preferences, behaviors and expectations around how they shop. Many “real world” transactions are the results of a digital interaction, whether that entails product research from the couch or a Pinterest Pin that leads to a purchase.
Moreover, 90 percent of shoppers use their smartphones in-store as they shop to look up more information about a product, compare pricing, read reviews, and/or ask friends for feedback. Shoppers, and particularly millennials, are interested in self-service, meaning they prefer to find answers on their own rather than ask a store associate. They also rely heavily on the input of people in their social network when making purchasing decisions and are price sensitive.
Furthermore, today’s consumers are accustomed to instant gratification. Waiting in a long checkout line or arriving at a store to find an item is out of stock feels frustrating, archaic even.
Retailers that fail to understand these new behaviors will be eclipsed by more digitally-savvy competitors (like Amazon). With infinite choices at their fingertips, customers will shun brands that do not offer modern, streamlined interactions, in particular on the mobile phone.
However, while brick-and-mortar retailers are recognizing the need for robust mobile apps, most have not, to date, delivered experiences that are compelling to consumers. It is not enough to have a mobile app—the app needs to be useful and enjoyable to use, particularly in the physical store.
What’s In My App?
Every retail mobile app should be designed to enhance the in-store shopping experience. This means enabling customers to easily access relevant information — from product details to reviews to shipping options. Apps can also provide value through personalized product recommendations. Mobile devices possess a wealth of data about consumers, and that data can be used to help them find what they are looking for. In addition, retail apps should include social features, which make it easy for customers to get input about potential purchases and share things they have bought with friends.
Shoppers also appreciate any tool that can save them time and/or money. Using mobile apps, retailers can seamlessly integrate the delivery of offers, discounts and coupons into the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, as well as provide access to loyalty programs. Furthermore, mobile devices enable retailers to switch from traditional spend-based structures, which are less appealing to millennials, to multidimensional loyalty programs that include other factors, such as social media influence.
Finally, by deploying their own “retail pay” service and/or self-checkout in their apps, brands can save their customers time spent waiting in line and introduce entirely new digital services, such as “order ahead” or order by simply scanning an item.
The best shopping experiences are those that integrate the digital and the physical worlds, drawing on what is most powerful and preferable about each. Regardless of product sector, all retailers have to think about how technology can give them an edge. Working on the “look and feel” of their mobile app is no longer enough. Rather, retailers have to thoughtfully leverage mobile devices to radically improve the shopping experience of their customers, every step of the way.
Mung Ki Woo is chief partnerships and international officer at Omnyway (formerly OmnyPay), a San Francisco-based business that empowers retailers, banks and brands to build a contextual digital commerce ecosystem that encourages shoppers to use their mobile phone for all aspects of their buying journey.