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Mall Crawl: Retailers’ Use of Mobile Apps

By Shannon M. Brown | Small Business

Mall Crawl: Retailers’ Use of Mobile Apps image 275273Mall Crawl: Retailers’ Use of Mobile AppsIt’s three in the afternoon on a sweltering, hot summer Saturday, and I’m at the mall. Ostensibly, I’m taking my 15-year-old niece and her friend shopping and to a movie, but really I am – in the time-honored tradition of cool aunts everywhere – trying to stay out of the way and enjoy some free air conditioning, while they flirt with boys and hunt down the world’s last remaining Orange Julius before the movie starts.

I don’t do much shopping at the mall these days. Partially because I live in a city, and it’s easier to take the subway downtown to get my retail fix. But more importantly, because I now do so much of my shopping online, I’m usually giving the credit card a workout at 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night in my pajamas. It’s the most convenient way to run up debt, after all.

But today I’m stuck here. I do, however, need of a pair of heels for a last-minute charity dinner, and even though I’m smack-dab in the middle of prime “retail estate,” I’m still tempted to use my smartphone to check out the shoes online. Why?

No Cinderella stories

My niece and her friend suggested a trendy boutique they both love. The tiny, neoprene dresses in the window display look exactly like they are designed for 15-year-old girls, and I suspect their shoe selection isn’t going to be much better. I try pulling up their Web site on my phone. But the midi music files and loud, animated graphics hang it up, and there’s no way to find out whether the store in this mall even carries my shoe size, let alone any shoes I’d want to buy. I take one more look at the tiny minidresses and decide to move on without ever actually walking through the door.

Next, I pass a classic retail shoe store. The smiling models in sensible work pumps are aimed squarely at my demographic. When I pull it up, the site is perfectly optimized for my phone, but clearly geared towards online shopping. I browse inside the physical store for a while, but when I find the perfect pumps, they have none left in my size. The clerk does her best to find out whether other nearby branches might, but neither her computer nor my smartphone can help us locate a pair. I sigh, sadly, and walk away.

With time running out before we have to catch the movie, I decide to check out the websites of the mall’s two department stores. Both are clean and optimized for my phone. With a few quick clicks, I can find the shoe department at one anchor store and check for the shoes I want in my size. And, they’ve got a mobile coupon for me, too. But the other department store is closer, and its similarly-well-designed site informs me that not only do they have the pumps I want in the color I need, it’s their semi-annual sale and they’re nearly half off. Proximity wins the day, and I score an adorable pair of designer slingbacks at a deep discount.

So, why did I just ramble on about my shoe hunt? To explain the importance of mobile apps in the retail industry. Even though I was physically in the store, I still used my phone to help me decide where to buy.

Thinking outside the app box

Is it any wonder that, in a recent TechValidate survey, developing mobile-ready Web sites was considered a priority? Fifty-eight percent of retailers responding put smartphone-friendly sites at the top of their list. Clean, easy-loading web pages can make a huge difference not only for online sales, but also for spur-of-the-moment mall trips, too.

Retailers also want dedicated apps (49%) and the ability to use their mobile apps as ad platforms (41%). Both seem like admirable goals, but may be slightly ahead of the curve. While more and more people use their smartphones or tablets more regularly for everyday tasks, the truth is that most people still use either a laptop or a desktop computer to do their heavy computing – and a lot of their shopping. Banner ads, even on crystal-clear iPad screens, can look cramped and – if they’re Android-based and Flash-heavy – can eat up users’ data limits, while dedicated apps are fighting for limited space on a smartphone’s hard drive.

Retailers’ thinking may have to change, depending on the marketing platform. Ads and apps are exciting, and easy to quantify, and so are often at the top of developers’ agendas. Apps for store employees, on the other hand, are a priority for only 27 percent of retailers responding, possibly because they don’t seem to add much customer value. But if the sweet clerk at the classic shoe store had had a tablet with the ability to plug in a quick search through their warehouse for the shoes I wanted, I would have made my purchase there with no questions asked. It might be harder to quantify, but without infrastructure, value sales may be lost.

So maybe next time I play “cool aunt” at the mall, I’ll not only be able to score new shoes, but also use my phone to get a couple dollars off the tub of popcorn that we’re all sharing at the movies. Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?

Learn more how mobile technology is changing customer experiences, in-store engagement and retail strategies in the full TechValidate survey.

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