Every mobile application targeting a retail or hospitality use case seems to have the obvious features: finding business locations, contact information, product/offering information, and in some cases user reviews/ratings of what’s being offered. These apps amount in many ways to a repackaging of the merchant’s existing website as a native application for the iPhone or Android mobile device. At the same time, there are also a number of interesting features that go beyond this basic “we gotta have an iPhone App too” mentality, and are beginning to utilize the mobile platform in new and interesting ways. In what follows we highlight five such features that we’ve spotted recently in one or more free applications in the retail/hospitality space.
1. Integrate the experience with the customer’s social graph. You would think this would be obvious these days, given the rate at which major brands are staking out their outposts on the latest social media frontiers. Yet, very few apps in this category integrate with the customer’s existing social media channels. GAP and Walmart are two notable exceptions to this. Once you’ve drilled down to a product detail page, Walmart’s iPhone app (dedicated to their consumer electronic offerings only) suggests you ask your friends on facebook (or via email) for advice.
The GAP’s StyleMixer iPhone app goes a step futher in that you can dynamically configure an outfit (see next point) and then share it via GAP’s homegrown social community, Facebook, and/or email addresses.
2. Assist in non-trivial product configuration/selection. Ever try to order pizza over the phone with a room full or car full of hungry adolescents all telling you their topping preferences at the same time? Not to worry, Pizza Hut’s iPhone application is a well-executed example of using the mobile platform to quickly whip together a precise order with a lot of non-trivial detail. There are other good examples of this same concept being used in retail to assist customers in product selection. Both Target’s and BestBuy’s iPhone applications provide novel gift selection wizards that let you quickly select an appropriate gift for that hard to please mother-in-law. As we already mentioned above, GAP’s StyleMixer iPhone app let’s you assemble a new outfit, complete with accessories, and then share it with your friends via Facebook Connect.
3. In store positioning. This feature is not exactly widespread at least at the moment, due to the non-trivial nature of doing precise positioning indoors. However, there are low tech ways that can be used to make the shopper’s life a lot easier. Though not particularly well executed (latest update seems to have broken the app, at least on my phone) the “Point Inside” iPhone app is a good example of this approach. The application provides floorplans of most of the larger malls within the USA.
Users can specify where they want to go (by selecting the destination store from a list). A Pin is then overlaid on the mall floor plans to help you gather your bearings and proceed to the store of interest. The functionality actually goes well beyond the “you are here” directories physically situated throughout the mall in that in addition to finding stores and their contact info, it helps you remember where you parked your car, and/or quickly find that much needed restroom or ATM. There are however, lots of ways to improve this particular app and make it truly useful for those of us who habitually lose our way in the shopping mall.
4. Product interest/intent signaling. Making it dead simple for a user to quickly pull up information on a specific product/offer via a mobile phone is advantageous for the merchant as well as the customer. One of the advantages online retailers like Amazon have is that they have a lot of information about the individual end user. This information is at a very fine resolution and includes what products you’ve looked up, how long you spent staring at the product information between clicks, etc. Traditional bricks and mortar retailers have little more than a list of past purchases to work with. Using the mobile device as a sort of in-store concierge should provide better customer services (e.g. no need to find the guy with a blue shirt in Best Buy – just look up the reviews on your phone) and also help gather a lot of useful customer information beyond the end purchase decision.
The first generation of mobile applications supporting this sort of functionality have taken the obvious route – use the phone’s camera to get an image of the product’s UPC code and then access network services to pull down the relevant product metadata. Two good examples of this are the Shop Savvy and RedLaser applications. However, if you have any experience at all using a dedicated barcode scanning device you’ll find that imaging barcodes with a mobile phone is tedious and sometimes not possible in low light situation or when product packaging is such that there is glare on the UPC or its all crinkled up. These apps have a backup plan of course, in that if all else fails you can type in the UPC code.
What is shaping up to be an even more interesting approach than scanning barcodes, is that taken by Amazon in the “Amazon Remembers” feature in their iPhone app. Here you simply take a picture of the product of interest and send it off to Amazon. Amazon first attempts to recognize the product automatically, and if successful a response is sent back to the phone in literally seconds. If Amazon’s automatic image processing doesn’t yield a it, hit gets outsourced to real human beings via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and you’ll get product info in short order.
A more recent attempt at this approach is Google Goggles. Goggles is intended to be a general “search by image” application and supports much more than product lookup. Though somewhat limited in its current incarnation, it gives you a good glimpse of the future, where you really don’t need a barcode – just point your phone at any object (people included?) and bingo you have everything you want to know about it.
5. Information aggregation. One very common theme is that a lot of applications in this space are not provided by the brand or merchants themselves, but by a third party that is aggregating data from a number of sources. The net effect is that the prospective customer is essentially armed with a real-time consumer guide in their pocket at all times. If a merchant doesn’t give the customer the best deal possible, the app will tell them where they can get it, just down the road at a nearby competitor’s establishment or online. Good examples of these sorts of apps are Shop Savvy (for retail) and UrbanSpoon and Yelp (for hospitality). If these
sorts of apps aren’t already getting the retailers attention they soon will be as more and more people begin to upgrade to application capable mobile phones. A good strategy for a retailer (beyond offering the lowest price and being as geographically ubiquitous as possible) is perhaps to offer a branded mobile experience of its own that provides a better experience than the third party aggregate apps, and possibly integrates more tightly with in-store experiences (indoor positioning, situated displays, POS, etc).
These are the best exemplars of these retail/hospitatlity mobile features that we’re aware of at the moment. If you are aware of better examples, please do let us know. We’re also interested in hearing from you if you can point us to mobile apps in the retail/hospitality space that incorporate features beyond the obvious, and which do not fit in one of the feature descriptions that in our list above.