9 Tips for Building Terrific Mobile Retail Apps

Ann All

Updated · Nov 05, 2014

Mobile devices play an increasingly prominent role in Americans' online shopping experiences, a trend illustrated by growth in both online retail traffic and sales.  According to IBM's Digital Analytics Benchmark, mobile accounted for 39.7 percent of all online retail traffic on Black Friday 2013, up 34 percent from 2012, while mobile sales grew 43 percent to hit 21.8 percent of total online sales.

Given this, it's no surprise that retailers are eager to produce mobile apps. Unfortunately, experts say, many of them make mistakes that result in mobile apps that neither engage users nor increase sales. These nine tips will help retailers create successful mobile apps.

Create a Cohesive Mobile Strategy

According to Kony research, fewer than 20 percent of organizations have an enterprise strategy for mobility, said Burley Kawasaki, SVP, Products for Kony. Instead, mobility often begins organically in separate business units under pressure to release apps, he said, resulting in a collection of apps without a cohesive strategy. This can create an inconsistent experience for a customer using multiple apps. It also adds complexity and expense because developers do not leverage or re-use common elements.

Know Your Retail Mobile App User

Peter Eckert, co-founder and chief experience officer, projekt202, said retailers waste money and resources by relying too heavily on market research to create mobile apps instead of reaching out to consumers.  “They look at historical data, but they do not go out and actually ask people how they use the tools.”

Even better, Eckert said, is taking the time to actually observe user behavior. “We observe people when they use stuff. When they do something unexpected, that's when you can zero in and try to figure out why that happened. Truly understanding user needs and getting to the ‘why' of the equation will help you form better hypotheses.”

Consider Current Technology

Many retailers have outdated technology that may limit what they can actually deliver, Eckert cautioned. “Whatever your mobile strategy is, you need to look at the underlying technology. You need a data layer, an API layer and a front-end layer to be scalable and flexible. Evaluating what you have will let you know whether you can dream blue sky or whether you need to be more grounded.”

Understand Cloud Requirements

Retailers opt for the cloud for their mobile initiatives because of its scalability and flexibility, Kawasaki said. But cloud comes with challenges such as the need for mobile apps to securely connect with existing on-premise systems. “A lot of work on the back end is required. Retailers must make sure they choose the proper architecture and design to take full advantage of the cloud. You cannot build apps the way you've done it before,” he said, noting retailers must consider new requirements for security, authentication and performance.

De-clutter Retail Mobile Apps

Many retailers do not make it easy for consumers to quickly find what they need and purchase it using an app, said Imtiaz Jaffer, head of marketing for Pivotal Labs. “Retailers must understand this is not about throwing everything you can at the user,” he said. “A lot of the features you can include in an app might be detrimental to you. It's about keeping it simple, ensuring it is an intuitive experience for the user, and enabling the customer to buy more, more frequently.”

Focus on the Right Retail Mobile App Features

Successful retail mobile apps share some common features, Jaffer said, all of which focus on helping consumers quickly find and purchase what they want. They include push notifications, which can be used to deliver targeted offers relevant to the consumer; image zoom/alternate images,  which give users the ability to look at products from many different angles; and one- or two-click checkout.

Retailers with brick-and-mortar storefronts can offer similar features, such as the ability for consumers to check prices by scanning an item with their mobile device and the ability to either pay from within the app or interact with a payment device like a kiosk that allows them to skip lines at the checkout. “It's still about speed and convenience,” Jaffer said.

Go Native

While Web applications offer some benefits such as broader mobile device coverage, Jaffer said native apps offer a far superior user experience. “Mobile consumers want the latest and greatest, and more often than not, that means native is the way to go,” he said. “It's especially important for retailers. At the end of the day, they need to sell product. Native apps have the advantage of better performance, including accessibility, interaction, responsiveness and, most importantly, access to device functionality.”

Keep Your Eye on the Big Picture

Retailers must ensure their internal operations can support their mobility programs. For example, Jaffer said, “You have to be agile to release updates with the right cadence.” In the same vein, Eckert said projekt202 once worked with a large retailer that had such poor store layouts it was difficult for shoppers to find merchandise, even using an app. “You may have deeper issues you need to address that cannot be fixed with an app,” he said.

Establish a Center of Excellence

Some of Kony's most successful customers are building mobility centers of excellence, Kawasaki said. “They often loan out staff to do on-the-ground knowledge transfer and offer design assistance for departmental teams. Through mentoring, guidance and best practices, they help ensure departmental projects fit the overall enterprise strategy,” he explained.

Ann All is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today and eSecurity Planet. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade, writing about everything from business intelligence to virtualization.


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  • Ann All
    Ann All

    Public relations, digital marketing, journalism, copywriting. I have done it all so I am able to communicate any information in a professional manner. Recent work includes creating compelling digital content, and applying SEO strategies to increase website performance. I am a skilled copy editor who can manage budgets and people.

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