Thanks to Pokémon Go, this summer has been all about the app. So, how can retailers integrate disruptive technology into their apps?

Thanks to Pokemon Go, this summer has been all about the app

Pokemon Go

Pokémon Go was this summer’s consumer craze

This summer, seemingly everyone became obsessed with an app, namely Pokémon Go. The game broke Apple’s App Store record for the most first-week downloads, and some Pokémon-hunters left their jobs, partners and even reality to find Pikachu and his pals.

The Pokémon craze has put apps back in the spotlight and showed how powerful and all-consuming they can be.

“It’s a misconception that apps went out of fashion,” says Richard Stephenson, chief executive of app developer Yudu Media. “Shoppers still spend the most time on apps, they’re just culling the ones that are not useful or interesting to them.”

However, Brett Cooper, technical director at multichannel consultancy Ampersand, says retailers are beginning to invest more in apps. He says this is because most retailers have already made major investments in their mobile websites.

“Now they’re thinking about loyalty and longevity of customer relationships,” he says.

But with memory space at a premium, shoppers will only keep retail apps they use regularly. So how can retailers ensure their apps don’t get deleted?

“You have to give people a reason to give your app space,” says Ian Kershaw, group mobile engineering director at Moonpig owner PhotoBox. “If it’s not something they use every day, it needs to have genuinely useful functions.”

Kershaw says PhotoBox’s app offers better functionality than its mobile website. Its app enables quicker payment via Apple Pay, has an easier image upload system and even an offline mode that allows shoppers to design their photobooks or cards on the go, at their convenience.

Building loyalty

With app use linked to loyalty, some brands have taken the logical step of launching app-based rewards schemes.

Harvey Nichols launched its loyalty app last year after its research found that more than 80% of its customers preferred an app over “another card in their wallet”. Shadi Halliwell, group marketing and creative director at Harvey Nichols said at the time that she believed the app was the future of communication with its customers: “Instant, personalised and modern.”

Health and beauty giant Superdrug has followed suit and moved its loyalty card onto an app. Cooper believes the future of rewards schemes is app-based.

Loyalty apps not only offer convenience to the customer, but they also capture real-time data of shopping behaviour in-store that helps retailers better understand their customers.

Great apps are not just about whizzy technology, they are also about making the shopping journey easy for the customer. For many retailers, that means investing in fast and easy search options. “People want immediacy from a mobile experience,” says M&C Saatchi Mobile’s James Shepherd. “We want to get to the stuff we’re interested in quicker.”

For the handmade cosmetics company Lush, Adam Goswell, who works in UX and digital design, says search is a big area of focus and the retailer is moving towards an intelligent search function. “This should enable customers to use one input to quickly surface content, help, order tracking or product instantly,” he says.

“This search engine should learn over time as more customers use it, making it more useful each time a search is performed.”

Goswell says he would like to couple this intelligent search capability with live human chat, which would give its customers the best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, image and voice-recognition search is increasingly being adopted to make search easier. Shop Direct-owned Very.co.uk launched an iPhone app last year that featured image-recognition technology – provided by Cortexica – that allows shoppers to take pictures of clothes they like and use them to search for similar styles in Very’s range. PhotoBox has integrated voice recognition search into its most recent Android app.

Emma Crowe, chief of client strategy at mobile agency Somo, believes younger shoppers will embrace these new search functions. “Millennials are highly visual and are using voice recognition,” she says.

Communicating via apps

Phones are an integral part of the in-store shopping experience. According to a study by Google and Ipsos carried out last year, 82% of shoppers consult their phones on purchases they are about to make in-store. This makes apps an effective way to communicate with shoppers while in-store.

US department store Barneys has worked with personalisation specialist RichRelevance to send users of its New York store app notifications with tailored content recommendations including videos, look books and designer videos as they move around the shop. In-store beacon technology triggers notifications when Barneys customers near items that are in their mobile shopping basket or on their wishlist to encourage them to buy.

Emma Crowe, chief of client strategy at mobile agency Somo, says retailers can do more with mobile in-store to help shoppers. She suggests mapping out aisles and using barcode scanning or RFID tags to allow customers to easily find out the ingredients in products.

Apps can also help staff improve service and boost sales. In June, Boots launched its Sales Assist app, which Apple and IBM helped to create, giving store staff real-time stock availability, and customer reviews to help them provide exemplary service in-store and drive sales.

Augmented reality

The Pokémon Go phenomenon has put a renewed vigour behind augmented reality, although retailers have been dabbling with the technology for a while.

Argos has made its catalogues come to life using an augmented reality app; Moonpig has produced greetings cards that show video content when a smartphone is pointed at it; and IKEA’s app allows shoppers to actually visualise how furniture would look in their home.

“If you’re having a £20,000 kitchen fitted, are you going to rely on your augmented reality app or are you going to get a tradesman round?”

Richard Stephenson, Yudu Media

Stephenson applauds retailers for trialling the technology but says none has achieved real success. “They have to ask what problem are they trying to solve. Augmented reality needs to add real value [for] the consumer,” he says. The question he asks is: “If you’re having a £20,000 kitchen fitted, are you going to rely on your augmented reality app or are you going to get a tradesman round?”

Another trend that Pokémon Go taps into that many retailers have flirted with is gamification. In 2014, Argos made a game for kids to compile their Christmas lists on its app.

Children are asked to select an animated helper, called Mo, Stik, Gil, Squidge or Fly, to help them navigate the app and add toys to their list, which is then ‘sent to Santa’ (i.e. emailed to parents).

The wishlist app boosted engagement and achieved an average dwell time of 11 minutes per visit. Two-thirds of all users sent an email ’to Santa’ and their parents that achieved a click-through rate of 36%.

Luxury department store Harrods has also invested in gamification to help it tap into a younger audience.

The retailer launched Stiletto Wars, a game to promote the opening of its Shoe Heaven department in 2014, which asked users to match shoes for points with prizes available for the top scorers. The Candy Crush-style game became a viral hit and drove 13,000 downloads and reached about 18 million people through social media.

Yudu Media’s Stephenson believes gamification could take off significantly in retail, but says rewarding customers is where the real opportunity is. “Rather than just giving customers coupons for loyalty, retailers could integrate a gaming aspect to entice shoppers to unlock rewards by getting to the next level,” he says.

Emerging technology and new shopping behaviours make it an exciting time to work in app development. If retailers can use these tools to solve real shopper problems, they will undoubtedly find new ways to keep their customers captivated.

Social shopping and chatbots

A big area of growth over the past few years has been shopping via social media. Recommendation is important to many shoppers, and social networks can help provide this at scale.

Two of the world’s most popular apps – Instagram and Tinder – have seamlessly integrated social media platforms.

Instagram users can log in and share images on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, while dating app Tinder pulls data from Facebook that shows mutual interests and mutual friends of potential matches.

For retailers, social integration allows users to favourite and recommend products, therefore influencing others to buy. Fashion retailer Oasis developed a new app earlier this year that syncs wishlists to online customer profiles and integrates social content.

Meanwhile, the emergence of chatbots has opened an opportunity for retailers to both help and sell to customers over third-party social apps.

“There’s a massive opportunity for retailers to really be where the conversation is happening. There’s an opportunity to move to conversational advertising and not just off-the-page”

Emma Crowe, Somo

Skype, Kik and, most recently, Facebook Messenger have opened up their apps so developers can create chatbots – artificial intelligence (AI) that chats with customers to answer queries and even sell products.

H&M was one of the first retailers to jump on the bots bandwagon with the social network Kik. Once logged on, customers can chat to the bot about their style preferences using multiple-choice answers and are then sent outfit and product suggestions. To buy a product, customers can tap on an item and are then taken to H&M’s mobile site.

“There’s a massive opportunity for retailers to really be where the conversation is happening. There’s an opportunity to move to conversational advertising and not just off-the-page,” says Somo’s Crowe of the chatbox feature.

M&C Saatchi Mobile commercial director James Shepherd says while bot technology might be relatively new, there is already “a real sophistication to them. A friend of mine was talking to a fake bot pretending to be his Irish cousin. It took him a few interactions to realise that it wasn’t his cousin in Cork; he was in conversation with a robot.”

“If retailers can utilise the technology in the right way that directly benefits consumers and has a human touch, that could be really powerful”

Adam Goswell, Lush

Adam Goswell, who works in UX and digital design at cosmetics retailer Lush, believes that AI could have a big impact on consumers’ digital experience. “If retailers can utilise the technology in the right way that directly benefits consumers and has a human touch, that could be really powerful,” he says.

PhotoBox’s Kershaw agrees and says the new breed of virtual assistants could provide opportunities for retail too.

Google, Amazon and Apple have all used AI to produce virtual assistants that can answer questions and perform tasks such as automatically hail an Uber cab, order a Domino’s pizza or purchase your mum’s birthday card.

Understandably, Kershaw is interested to see how this develops and discover how PhotoBox can benefit.

To read more about how your company can benefit from mobile, read Retail Week’s Mobile supplement on retail-week.com