The keys to mobile app innovation in retail

Az Yousaf, general manager of digital at customer experience firm Kalido.

We’re no strangers to the impact of digital technology on society, and online shopping is now the norm for many Australians, but brick and mortar C-store operations are at risk of being left behind, according to digital entrepreneur Az Yousaf.

Mr Yousaf, general manager of data gathering and analysis service Kalido, said there’s a lot of room to build on the digital side of C-store sales, and that Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world.

“I think that retailers in Australia have done some great work, for example the 7-Eleven app, which allows you to find the lowest price for fuel and lock it in for seven days,” he said.

“No doubt 7-Eleven collects the data, but I think that typically retailers in Australia have been thinking about taking the bricks and mortar experience and move that online, and that allows them to do the obvious stuff, find stores, get opening times, contact details, transactions, but consumers won’t engage with retailers on an ongoing basis through those if that’s all they’re offering.

“Consequently the business won’t see the channel as being useful, and won’t invest in it further.”

So, what do we need to do to avoid these digital false starts in the convenience industry? Mr Yousaf advised that what is needed is a shift in thinking, to differentiate the experience and stand out from the crowd. He suggested more work is needed on personalising these digital offerings to individual customers, using a data-driven approach, and thinking “outside the square”.

“Retailers need to think in a way that is more customer-centric,” he said. “Rather than simply moving your current retail experience online, you need to make it much more engaging. It will get much more traction if you go beyond the obvious stuff.”

The Foodary has a mobile app that allows pre-ordering to save time.

That’s all good and well, but the question on every retailer’s lips is HOW? What’s required here is some creativity, which is what has been exhibited by Caltex with their mobile app for their new service station concept, The Foodary.

In its present form, the Caltex app brings additional value to the conventional store-to-mobile approach by including an ordering service. Customers make their order from the list of available products, and then can pick it up at the store with no browsing or (foot traffic permitting) waiting time. This additional level of service lets lunchtime customers engage with the store in a way that saves precious minutes in their work break.

Ultimately, the key question is, can a mobile app get more customers through your doors? Mr Yousaf believes so.

“Absolutely! If you’re currently in the situation where your offering transactional service, one based on convenience and need rather than desire and want, something needs to change.

“If someone needs petrol, they also need a station that’s convenient; there’s little desire or want there, it’s a very transactional process. And I think there’s an opportunity there to create experiences that disrupt that process.”

How can mobile applications move beyond mere transactional processes and into something unique?

With so many options available when it comes to digital, how can we redirect our thinking to brainstorm outside the box? Where do we start?

To create an experience that disrupts the transactional process and takes customers back to their needs and wants, all in an app platform that stands out, it needs to improve efficiency, it should surprise and delight, and in turn a developer would hope that it also generates loyalty.

Rather than customers going to any shop out of desperation, what is needed is something that will make the customer seek out your store.

“That 7-Eleven experience for example, where you can lock in a price, it can do just that,” Mr Yousaf said.

“Through mobile experience, there’s an opportunity to potentially up-sell or cross-sell, and create a one-to-one relationship with your customers.

“But it needs to move away from simply taking the transactional process and putting it online. That’s not engaging enough for most people to want to keep coming back and doing it: It gets tiring and people just won’t do it.”

One retailer trying to set an engaging mobile experience in place is Amazon, which has been trialing stores with no tills and no attendants, in which customers select what they want from the shelves and walk out of the store, with payments automatically facilitated by a mobile app.

Mobile apps can create relationships to leverage the technology in ways that a mobile website cannot, according to Mr Yousaf.

“An app can access hardware, such as a camera, a GPS, a pedometer, or other communication devices,” he said.

The overnight success of the game ‘Pokemon Go’ demonstrates the level of engagement possible with apps that take advantage of other technologies within the smartphone platform.

One feature within mobile platforms that could be used is the push notification service, which may serve as an alert for specials and other traditionally in-store promotions.

“It might be a case of a customer being detected as they enter a store or a forecourt, passing through a geo-fence, leveraging the GPS capability of the phone to identify when you actually come into the forecourt, or it could even be something that picks up on your Bluetooth connectivity.

“It identifies who you are, where you are, and it can tell you what’s on offer right there.”

“It can give you a complimentary offer, and generate potential for a cross-sell.”

Mr Yousaf said it could be important to limit the activity of the app to times when the customer actually comes to the store, so as to not cause them to turn the app off due to excessive notifications.

Camera functionality could be employed to set up an augmented reality to show things like special prices or promotions that are only on offer to app users, and as wearable technology becomes more commonplace, gadgets such as Google Glass could be used in the same way, something Mr Yousaf is really looking forward to.

“That will open up a whole new world of experiences, and those retailers and convenience stores and any other business that can provide experiences that are engaging and relevant to a customer will stand out,” he said.

“They’ll have a competitive advantage over other businesses that don’t offer those experiences.”

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