2011.29 | Mobile Retail Apps

In order to get the attention of today’s consumer, retailers need to provide the best possible experience from any channel where customers wish to interface with them.  Michael’s – home to the crafty types – has put together their own mobile app with a spin towards functionality that they feel that their following would enjoy – things like video examples and mobile versions of datasheets, as well as the usual coupons and offers.  Sounds terrific.

Here are a few thoughts about following in their footsteps with an iPhone app:

1.  Ensure your target market are iPhone users.  I’m sure Michael’s checked that and decided that the development was worthwhile.  Mobile apps are inexpensive compared to many enterprise level retail software development efforts, so it probably wasn’t a difficult decision.  Because Michael’s already had a library of web based resources anyway, the only addition was probably the iPhone interface.

Fundamentally, with web services in place they can all be leveraged to build an app for another platform.  More practically, I recommend a mobile web based interface for the retailer’s website that will work on any platform.  There are platforms that will automatically re-format the screens to fit any size device – Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Windows and more – based on the browser and screen resolution of the device accessing the page.  This is more a function of practicality than design.  Why provide functionality to users on one platform, when for a similar cost, you could provide it to all smartphone users?

Examples of mobile web instead of apps click on theses links with your mobile: LLBean and Sears. For lots of examples of apps, check out my page on Canadian retailers with links to social media and apps.  A recent article indicates that retailers are starting to follow this web format instead of iPhone apps.

2.  Make sure the mobile app has functions that are practical and add to the customer experience you want to provide.  Just because an advertising company will throw in an app for free as part of a contract, or your head of marketing wants to have an app to see your logo in the apple store doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile to the consumer.  In fact, if the app doesn’t add anything new to the arrangement, the consumer may feel you have been wasting their time.    A standard store finder isn’t enough – I can just do that on the maps application.  However, one that shows via a coloured icon that the store is currently open, as is used on Starbucks Canada or McDonalds Canada, is a pretty good idea.  The Home Depot Canada app has a function to measure screws and various other items.  All of these are examples of trying to do something different that is helpful, and can enhance the customer experience for their specific clientele.  I can’t tell you the idea that will make your app or web based store, but your customers might!  Ask them.

3.  Ensure the app can identify the user in a way that the customer can opt in or opt out.  Most retailers have a loyalty program in place.  What better way to identify the customers than leveraging this same infrastructure?  Be certain that opting in works flawlessly and simply and that nobody is forced to identify themselves.  In fact, if there is an additional benefit to the customer to identifying themselves on the app, all the better.  If there is extra functionality for loyalty users, they are more likely to identify themselves and be happy about it.

Why identify customers?  There are benefits to customers and retailer alike.  First, if the customer is identified, it is possible to provide a unique experience for that customer.  Whether it is default languages or remembering shopping lists, having that identification allows the retailer to provide additional benefits to the consumer, and they in turn may have the opportunity to opt in to the experience that they wish to have across mobile, POS and web interfaces.  A customized experience can drive loyalty, which drives bigger baskets and more sales.

Secondly, having the identification in place allows retailers the ability to identify what channels and functionality are used and by whom.  Considering the myriad opportunities for IT investment, knowing who is using what in what way provides a validation of customer usage against customer sales.  If only 200 customers are using your iPhone app, that may seem like a bad investment, but if 90% of them are in your top segment for sales, that may not be the case.  Just looking at downloads of an app is not good enough anymore.  This also turns around for the customers.  Seeing what customers are using ensures that the best channels and functionality are available to them for their retailer.

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2011.06 | Electronic Payments and Gratuities

Different cultures treat gratuities differently. For instance, visiting a Tim Horton’s in Quebec, customers often encounter a broad swath of coins in front of the point of sale unit. Consider this the horizontal approach to the traditional tip jar. It’s a simple visual cue to remind customers to leave their nickels, dimes, quarters, or the odd loonie at the end of a transaction. You don’t see that in Ontario where a a jar or cup are the favoured vehicle.

What becomes of tip jars in the electronic age? If there is no silver (nickel, copper, zinc) passing from hand to hand in a transaction, what happens to the tip jar?  This is a gap in the current move towards electronic payments. In this case, there is not an app for that – at least not one I’ve noticed.

In the past, paying with a card in a lunch line would have been considered pretentious – an inconvenience to the store and the customers in line. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.  An article today in QSR quoted a shop owner who said that half of clients coming into his store want to use electronic payment. While the electronic option is a tremendous convenience to consumers, there are well documented costs to the store owners to provide this convenience.

The part of these new electronic transactions that has not been addressed in the media or in an electronic manner is the gratuity. While those of us who do not work directly in the service industry probably don’t give it more than a passing thought, those tip jars, and the income they represent are certainly important to the people that help us every day. Without the opportunity to leave a tip, consumers lose a chance to thank those who help us with a small token of appreciation. With the onset of increasing electronic payments, consumers are less likely to throw a few coins of change into the jar or on the pile, as there is no residual change to jingle in their pocket.

Casual and formal dining establishments certainly provide the capacity to tip electronically by providing a gratuity step in the electronic purchase but what about the coffee shops, sandwich shops, and independent burger joints? QSR establishments do not have any sort of capability to enable a gratuity to be passed via an electronic purchase.

What to do?  In some areas, tips can make a difference for employees, and for retailers a small perquisite with which to attract top notch help that can drive more business.  As usage of cash starts to decrease, innovative retailers and solutions vendors will find a way to continue the tradition.  I suggest the following thoughts:

  • Ensure any solution is unobtrusive and passive.  I personally loathe being asked if I want to pay $1 to support charity of the day.  I support various charities on an ongoing basis and applaud their work, but refuse to pay any of these point of sale charity fees on principle as it feels to me like someone is trying to shame me into doing the right thing by having a rosy cheeked teen ask me if I want to plant a tree for $1.  Tipping can NOT go in this direction if it is to be successful.   Any opportunity to leave a gratuity for good service needs to be understated and private.  The slot under the window for Ronald McDonald House at the McDonalds Drive Thru will see some of my change, as it doesn’t judge me.
  • Leverage solutions already in place to ensure ease of use and universal capability.  While it may be tempting to use an iPhone app to tip someone, adding a step to a low value transaction could potentially slow the line, and remove the potential of further gratuities for the server.  If the solution is only an iPhone or Blackberry app, what about the good old plastic card carriers?
  • Make any solution simple and ensure it is operationalized. Today, for small value purchases on credit, cashiers quickly swipe the card and hand it back – no signature required.  Given that card payments are moving to chip and pin in Canada, customers are more accustomed to swiping, dipping, or tapping their own cards.  Why not encourage customers to swipe their own card, and on the pinpad screen provide a single button press to round up to the next dollar with the push of a single button.  Nobody sees the transaction but the client, and the server can be rewarded.  In fact, now the retailer can see who’s really pulling customers into the store.

Tipping is complicated at the best of times.  Are they individual, are they pooled, would servers want to hide how much they get in tips from their employers, or from the tax authority?  While it’s hard to say the direction it will go, it seems inevitable that some electronic mechanism for tipping for low dollar transactions will occur.  Maybe one day it won’t be a trail of coins at the POS, but a tap of a contactless card to a separate reader that says tips – the true electronic tip jar…

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