by Ashley Heltne, Director of Client Engagement, YML

October 6, 2020

With the retail climate making a dramatic and immediate shift online in the past seven months, we, as digital makers and builders, have had an influx of clients asking the right questions: 

  • How do I mirror the in-store experience, online?
  • How do we make it better?
  • How do we convert with the same enthusiasm as in-store?

When recently partnering with Thrive Market, an inherently digital marketplace, our team defined three key rules that are true of every successful online retailer. The remit in this instance was to make a first-class user experience even better, with an emphasis on driving conversion.

In doing that, we were forced to deeply evaluate the components of a best in class experience in this new, socially distant, digital-dependent world. Here is what we learned, and is critical to consider when building your customer experience and, consequently, your evolved business model.  

1. Friction is the Enemy

Early development principles would have us believe that number of clicks, or time speed to checkout are the most important things to measure, but we keep finding that users are becoming more and more adept at navigating the online purchase process. In fact, several users actually look forward to searching, shopping, and creating carts.

In other words, online grocery shopping could soon replace the proverbial game of Tetris.

With this behavior shift, the real killer to conversion is friction. Upselling? Fine. Added recommendations engines? Fine. Inspiration boards? Fine. Additional features blocking the user's ability to add an item to cart? Friction.

Key takeaway: 16% increase in 1st time orders for Thrive Market members.

2. Try Everything, Pivot Quickly

To more efficiently make an impact on our client’s business in this shifting landscape, YML has evolved your typical client / agency relationship into a more transparent partnership. Gone are the days of waiting two weeks for your agency to put together a dog and pony show deck for the bosses waiting in Conference Room B.

To keep up with the rapidly changing nature of product development, our client teams collaborate in the same working files (shout out to Figma and Miro - our new necessities), to take notes, suggest edits, and build out new user flows in real time. Our rule here is simple: no idea is bad. Build it and test it. But if the idea doesn't work - move on. The only true expert in product development is the user, which will come to light in user testing. Even the most brilliant design system is out the window if our core user isn't able to navigate it easily.

Key takeaway: 9.7% increase in membership sign ups for Thrive Market.

3. Customization is Key

Navigating an online marketplace with over 7,000 sku's is overwhelming. But unlike brick and mortar stores, your digital product has the opportunity to learn and grow. With robust data collection and analytics, the ability to create customized experiences results in efficiency and stickiness; for example, when Thrive users search for an organic, dairy product, they have always been served a variety of recommendations based on those specifications.

Simple enough.

But now, when we also find out that this user is a mother of two who is married to someone with a peanut allergy, we offer meal suggestions, put together thoughtful shopping lists, and introduce recipes that inspire further discovery in the kitchen.

Key takeaway: 64% increase in Thrive Market customers who added products from personalized recommendations.

Users have come to expect these principles as table stakes from online stores. And every leading retailer has already conquered them; Target, Houzz and, of course, the all powerful Amazon know that users become loyal when they find delight in knowing that their online experience causes zero frustration, knows what they like, has fun searching around, and, most importantly, saves them the hassle of roaming crowded, picked-over store aisles for an hour on Saturday mornings.

About the Author: Ashley Heltne

Ashley is YML's director of client engagement. She has over 12 years of experience building successful and lasting client partnerships. She has worked at several top advertising and consumer experience agencies including R/GA, Digitas, and Y&R. While there, she led integrated marketing programs for brands like Verizon, Taco Bell, eBay, EA Games, and Liberty Mutual. Ashley’s agency tenure has equipped her to tackle any business problem from a strategic, solutions-first approach.

Several of the consumer engagement programs Ashley’s team built for Taco Bell, Verizon, and Liberty Mutual were regarded as first of their kind, securing three Cannes Lions, four Clios, and one Effie. While this work garnered attention from the industry, they also increased acquisition, retention, and loyalty for her clients’ business.

by Joe Johnston, Creative Director + Co-Studio Lead ATL

Today, when shoppers are likely to be skittish about being in stores—if they visit at all—those who adapt using technology strategically and design intuitively will be better positioned to survive. More than just ordering online, digital solutions will have to consider every aspect of the business: operating logistics, employee safety, the use of physical space. And, if social distance becomes the new norm, how can technology connect humans for the better? 

Contactless Shopping 

While stores are quickly rolling out contactless payments due to COVID-19, many still use self-service touch screens and pin pads for transactions and loyalty. Given new CDC guidelines, where people are being encouraged to avoid using touch screens and pin pads, in some cases, they may no longer be allowed to use them at all. Additionally, with supply chain challenges and keeping items in stock, customers have been left with limited choices on where and what they buy.

This has led companies to adapt to new technology solutions and speed up their digital transformation. Critically, they're working with customers in partnership toward creating a more safe environment for the benefit of both parties. Stores and customers alike have had to make huge adjustments in recent months. Relying on customers to use their own devices places greater ownership in their hands to help manage their own safety, as well as contribute to the safety of others, including store employees. With this new behavior, stores are discovering even more benefits to digital product strategy.

Mobile checkout can help save customers time, both in the aisles and at the register.

Utilizing personal devices reduces interactions with physical screens and pin pads, and enables real-time loyalty offers to be activated, as well as preemptive stock tracking. During COVID-19 when 52% of customers buy what's currently available, this creates an opportunity for stores to help shoppers shop more efficiently.

"Especially during this time of hygiene safety at the gas pumps, which option is better for the customer—wiping down every surface as they move through their day, or adjusting to a new and improved contactless experience?"

Going beyond in-store experiences, this same idea is being applied to companion services. Think grocery store gas pumps, for example. You know the drill—slide in the card, punch your loyalty and PIN number, push the fuel type and fill the car. Just like mobile shopping, mobile check out at fuel pumps can happen in a similar way. Especially during this time of hygiene safety at the gas pumps, which option is better for the customer—wiping down every surface as they move through their day, or adjusting to a new and improved contactless experience?

For companies that adapt to the latter, they are not only helping to curb the spread of germs, but discovering new ways to improve the customer experience. Shell has already shown how this shift can occur. The mobile experience can be as easy as sitting in your car, selecting the pump, adding your loyalty and paying digitally, reducing physical touch points as much as possible. This experience could extend after COVID-19 allowing customers to stay in the car and out of the elements.

Rearranging Space

For brick-and-mortar grocery locations, adding new mobile device and digital capabilities can also add a layer of complexity and challenges for grocery stores. A strong wifi network is needed to support customers checking out and scanning items. Also, monitoring accurate check out using a self-service mobile device increases risk of inventory loss in some cases.

Although, if customers are able to shop at home and simply pick up their groceries, it can reduce the burden on a central digital network and minimize the need for extra security considerations.

With other restrictions, like limited store capacity, using an app for customers to schedule shopping time could help. Stores like Walmart started limiting the number of shoppers and re-examining their entire shopping and checkout system. No more than five customers will be allowed in for every 1,000 square feet, which is roughly 20% of a store's capacity. If the app was mandatory before entering the store, things like virtual queuing and in-store monitoring could be managed more easily by the store. Think the Fast Pass at Disney, which allows pass holders to reserve ride times during scheduled windows and change as needed.

Another aspect of the contactless shopping experience we expect to see take on more prominence is the use of temperature scanning and contact tracing methods.

Currently Apple & Google are in partnership developing a contact tracing API that could help stores and customers understand when they are in range of a potentially infected person. This would require shoppers and employees alike to have the store app downloaded, assisting in additional safety and security measures.

As the uncertainty grows around traveling to grocery stores, let alone being in them, customers want to feel safe and showcasing hygiene transparently will act as a short-term customer experience differentiator for some businesses.

Hygiene theatre will play a crucial role for business because, well, customers have expectations of things being clean. The expectation is to see these things happening in front of them. From wiping down grocery carts in front of customers to seeing cleaning crews to communicating times the stores are closed each day for cleaning. Several grocery stores are installing physical plexiglas sneeze guards in checkout lanes to visually show the safety between employees and customers. This expectation will only grow.

As the uncertainty grows around traveling to grocery stores, let alone being in them, customers want to feel safe and showcasing hygiene transparently will act as a short-term customer experience differentiator for some businesses.

The Rise of the Grocery Consultant 

With more people ordering online than ever before, essential workers may find themselves shifting into more of a consultant-type role, learning customers specific dietary and budget needs, then packaging them up for pick-up or delivery.

Traditionally, professional personal grocery shopping has been seen as a luxury. But with apps such as Instacart opening this service up to more and more people, it has become a common activity. What’s missing from this experience, however, is specialized knowledge to help navigate the moments when a critical selection decision has to be made based on dietary or other shopping criteria.

The need for in-store employees to support customers who order online with meeting dietary needs, balancing healthy eating habits, or helping them to shop on a budget is a space ripe for exploration and optimization. 

As COVID-19 continues to increase online ordering and delivery activity by nearly 3.5X, the idea of people with specialized knowledge becomes a differentiator. Additionally, it creates a greater opportunity for essential workers to cultivate a growth path through UpSkill models,. This method can boost employee engagement and satisfaction that ultimately benefits everyone—employees, customers, and company managers alike. It’s one of the ways corporations can work toward greater operational goals that align with ESG(Environmental, Social, and Governance) practices.

One of the top reasons customers love to shop for groceries themselves is to be able to enjoy the range of items. In the current environment, with limited or inconsistent supplies, numbers suggest people are eating less produce (36%) and more processed foods (47%). Additionally, customers place more trust in an end-to-end experience, reducing the chance for errors or third party logistics that increase more points of contact.

The need for in-store employees to support customers who order online with meeting dietary needs, balancing healthy eating habits, or helping them to shop on a budget is a space ripe for exploration and optimization. 

Food Door-to-Door

Perhaps the largest shift in behavior during months of quarantine has been the move toward online food shopping. As restaurants were at first ordered to close their doors, many found a loophole to staying open and keeping a skeleton staff employed through pick-up or delivery only services. Those already with an online ordering system made the shift easily. Others who may have had a website, but not the capability to order, worked to expand their digital or mobile services. Newcomers found make-shift solutions to help them keep going.

Just last year, only 11% of consumers bought groceries online once a month. What was once a novelty experience for some, has turned into a practical solve for keeping the kitchen stocked, inspiring people everywhere to wonder why they haven’t shopped this way until now.

Grocery outlets and online food services, however, have seen the largest uptick in business. Just last year, only 11% of consumers bought groceries online once a month. What was once a novelty experience for some, has turned into a practical solve for keeping the kitchen stocked, inspiring people everywhere to wonder why they haven’t shopped this way until now.

Think about it—no more dragging screaming kids to the grocery store, no more wandering aisles aimlessly and hungry, the ability to manage spending and avoid impulse buys, perhaps putting those resources into buying higher quality food.

With some stores like Menards, creating no kids policies, this further focuses the opportunity for food delivery services.

Customers make 1.6 trips a week to the grocery store on average. This is trending down because of COVID-19 with nearly 73% of customers making fewer visits. Customers are also nervous and have high level of anxiety when shopping. 60% of customers report being fearful of grocery shopping and having a sense of panic. Controlling the full store-to-handoff experience as hygiene considerations increase will set some companies apart. For example, places like Chick-fil-A now allow you to select Chick-fil-A Team Member Delivery.

The Digital Employee Experience

Today, with everyone managing a new sense of normal, store employees have been among the most impacted. Having long-forgotten how they used to work, they have already adapted to new ways of interacting with daily tasks, as well as customers. Company leaders can further support their employees by adopting digital-first resources for education and learning.

Using mobile experiences to re-train employees will be key.

Topics around proper hygiene, how to stock shelves with customers nearby, or even training materials to help essential employees grow into greater service providers can all be supported by a contactless, online portal.

Communication is one of the best tools companies have in organizing a coordinated response to new ways of doing business. Creating learning modules that can be monitored for completion and designed for all types of learners is a valuable investment that will sustain a company well into the future. By using a digital platform, new policies and learning materials can be easily uploaded or updated. Topics around proper hygiene, how to stock shelves with customers nearby, or even training materials to help essential employees grow into greater service providers can all be supported by a contactless, online portal.

Loyalty doesn’t end with customers.

Incentivizing employee loyalty through a digital experience allows people to quickly learn and improve skills for new types of work. Companies like Walmart have a robust suite of associate apps that bring new skills opportunities to their employees.

If there’s one thing that has become vastly apparent during COVID-19, it’s that essential workers have given us all a life line. With grocery store employees and delivery personnel at the front lines, it’s a great time to bolster support and appreciation for their roles. 

Illustration by Kevin Tudball.

About the Author: Joe Johnston

Joe has over 18 years experience in the areas of experience design, service design, customer insight, and innovation for many notable brands including: Lowe's, Coca-Cola, UPS, Capital One, State Farm, Arby's, Bosch, Herman Miller, AT&T, TIAA, Freddie Mac, Meijer, Principal Financial & Sony Music. This includes experience and service design, future visioning and ideation across brand experience and strategy. He's also an accomplished author, speaker, and expert on user experience/customer experience and experience innovation. Formerly Joe was the Group UX Director at Huge in Atlanta leading a team on several top brand experiences and exploring new innovative technologies.

The unexpected spread of Covid-19 has upended institutions across the spectrum, forced an array of industries to rapidly evolve and shined a light on brands like Thrive Market that were born digital and prepared to serve a population stuck at home.

Money Magazine just celebrated Thrive Market, the beloved organic e-commerce retailer and a client of YML, as among the best digital grocery options for affordable and local groceries. Money shared:

"Frequently described as “Costco meets Whole Foods,” Thrive Market is an e-commerce membership club that promises low wholesale prices and home delivery on a variety of organic and non-GMO groceries and home and beauty supplies. For the most part, Thrive Market features pantry staples — crackers, pasta, condiments — from their generic house brands, but “thoughtfully sourced” seafood and meat is available too. Overall prices aren’t super low, but they are competitive if not cheap compared to their organic counterparts at most supermarkets. Membership costs $9.95 per month or $59.95 annually, after a 30-day free trial, and delivery is free for members on orders of $49 or more."

More than just ordering online, digital grocery solutions today have to consider every aspect of the business: from the how to design a clear and intuitive mobile experience to operating logistics, employee safety, the use of physical space. Thrive Market, despite being just six years old, is well on its way to not only making a consistent impact for its members, but a more significant impact on the grocery industry as a whole.

Related press:

  • Can Rivals Take Advantage of Amazon’s Pandemic Woes? It Isn’t Easy, Wall Street Journal
  • Thrive Market CEO faces challenges of keeping up with demand during COVID-19 crisis, Supermarket News
  • Why Thrive Market is, well, thriving, Barrons

No doubt about it: the mobile payments marketplace is set to explode — and soon. The fuse has been burning for years, lit perhaps by PayPal, perhaps by Apple, perhaps by Near Field Communication (NFC) or other enabling technologies. Whatever the origin, the imminent rise in mobile payment technology is going to change life in a big way.

Players across a spectrum of industries, from retail to wireless, mobile device to financial services, are vying to dominate this next phase in the mobile payment revolution. In the social media realm, for example, Twitter will soon be able to offer its users the ability to Tweet “in the moment” purchase experiences, thanks to the company’s recent purchase of CardSpring, an application platform that allows the creation of promotional offers directly supported by credit cards and other forms of payment. Photo-sharing service SnapChat has unveiled the ability to add location-based logos and other labels to photos — a move that will not only enhance its monetization strategies through corporate branding, but is also likely to spur other eCommerce opportunities in the future.

Facebook, perhaps the most commercially aggressive of the major social media destinations, has plans to process purchase transactions using its own smartphone technology. Soon users will be able to make purchases right from their Facebook mobile app. Just click “buy,” enter your credit card information once, and the item will be on its way — and Facebook will be the more profitable for it.

Social media channels are anxious to support commerce transactions because they need to diversify their income streams beyond advertising. What’s more, they know a great deal about their users’ preferences and habits — and that information has immense value. Bricks-and-mortar merchants, for their part, are collecting the same kind of customer data. For some of the best-known retail names, this is supporting a wide range of mobile payment initiatives.

Starbucks, an early pioneer in mobile payments through its proprietary smartphone app, is going to begin testing a new advance-ordering capability that will allow customers to place (and remember) their favorite orders before ever walking into the store. Domino’s Pizza is currently expanding its Android smartphone payment options to include Google Wallet; and Chipotle, another chain that embraced online ordering in its infancy, is spending millions to equip its stores with in-store payment readers similar to those in place at most Starbucks locations.

Other merchants are looking to mobile apps and devices to facilitate mobile payments. OpenTable, the restaurant reservation app, is testing a capability in New York and San Francisco that allows diners to review their bill, add a tip, make their payment, receive acknowledgement from their server, and have their receipt emailed to them, all from within the OpenTable app. On the other end of the spectrum, Amazon has announced the Fire Phone, a smartphone that lets users scan items in stores and immediately purchase them — a move that will potentially redefine “showrooming” for thousands of bricks-and-mortar retailers.

As might be expected, payment service providers and at least a few financial institutions are in the game as well. Earlier this year, MasterCard acquired C-SAM, the global digital wallet technology provider behind ISIS and other commercial mobile payment services. Using C-SAM technology, MasterCard intends to accelerate deployment of its MasterPass digital service. Visa has countered with Visa Checkout; its lineup of big-name merchants includes Neiman Marcus, United Airlines, Pizza Hut, Staples and TicketMaster.

PayPal, the leader in digital payments, is moving forward with mobile payments on several fronts. In addition to Pay at Table, a service similar to OpenTable’s mobile payment offering, PayPal is offering mobile payment options with Jamba Juice, ridesharing innovator Uber, and hundreds of other businesses where customers can pay from their phones simply by checking into their PayPal app.

Tech giant Apple, however, may play the biggest card of all later this year. Rumors are increasing that the iPhone 6 will include Near Field Communication technology for contactless payments. Earlier this year, CEO Tim Cook mentioned in an earnings call that the iPhone’s Touch ID capability offers “a big opportunity” for advancements in mobile payments; the company also announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference that it would extend Touch ID to third-party app developers, almost certainly giving payment service providers a key enabling technology. Also giving Apple a strong advantage are the hundreds of millions of credit cards it has on file through its iTunes service.

For virtually anyone interested in making money from the growth in smartphones, mobile payments make sense. Transaction fees trump online content as a means of generating profit — and as time goes on, a larger percentage of customers both online and at the cash register will be expecting the ability to pay through their smartphone. The question is, which direction should merchants take to position themselves for mobile payments?

Small-to-midsize retailers don’t have the means to develop smartphone payment capabilities in-house; for them, linking with a major payment service provider makes sense. PayPal’s mobile payment API (Application Programming Interface) supports pay-by-phone integration within a merchant’s app; another option is to adopt reader or NFC technology at the cash register. One aspect that many merchants don’t realize is that transaction fees are negotiable. With so many companies and institutions competing for merchant business, the market favors the merchant.

Whichever direction online and/or bricks-and-mortar retailers choose, it’s clear that a big step forward in the mobile pay space is imminent. As customers become increasingly comfortable with the idea of leaving their traditional wallets at home, merchants of all stripes need to plan their mobile payment strategy. When this tech wave hits, retailers and e-tailers need to be riding it — not caught in the undertow.

It’s true that e-commerce has dramatically changed the way the average consumer shops. Steady in-store foot traffic has been slumping for years, while online research becomes more prevalent for today's consumers. Before making big purchases -- those that cost $500 or more -- approximately 80 percent of shoppers start their journey with online research.

Simultaneously, smartphones are playing a bigger role in shopping, and even connects shoppers to brick-and-mortar stores. While browsing in a physical store, 73 percent of shoppers are on their smartphones doing research on the products they consider buying.

In other words, even outside the realm of e-commerce, a brand’s web presence still impacts a customers’ purchasing decisions. Brands can use this knowledge to their advantage by developing apps that help users learn more about their products. While some companies may be tempted to rely on their mobile sites, apps offer benefits that mobile sites don’t.

Advantages of mobile apps for retailers:

According to a recent survey, consumers spend about seven times longer on mobile apps than sites or browsers. Shopping apps are also rising in popularity: In 2014, mobile shopping app downloads increased by a whopping 170 percent.

It’s also worth noting that among customers who turn to their browsers for research, 60 percent begin on a search engine, 61 percent read customer reviews before making a decision, and 51 percent abandon their carts if a digital annoyance happens before customers reach the point-of-sale.

Additionally, during the research and transaction phase, a lot of other distractions on the internet could keep shoppers from completing the transaction. With a mobile app, this isn’t as much of a problem.

Apps also allow retailers to customize their own analytics so they can more effectively track customer behavior. An app also keeps your brand at top of mind for customers. Think about it: they’re constantly seeing your brand’s icon on their mobile device and soon enough, you’re integrated into their daily life.

cross-channel apps

What's in an app?

Just because an app can help boost sales, doesn’t mean that any ol' app will succeed. Your app needs to  genuinely offer useful features that make life easier for the consumer.

1. Embracing new technologies is one way to offer features that are truly valuable. For instance, augmented reality technology is capable of allowing users to “try” certain products at home before making the purchase decision.

Case in point is Wayfair Inc.’s app called Wayfair View, which allows users to superimpose images of furniture or fixtures onto images of their homes, so they can better understand what an item might look like in the physical space.

IKEA released a similar app. Sephora uses AR to let users “try on” makeup virtually. When customers can try products via their mobile devices, they’re more likely to head to a store and make a purchase.

2. Gamification is another way of making an app valuable to customers. Just consider Nike’s app, which lets users connect the app with a FuelBand. They can then post goals, track workouts, and challenge others to competitions. The app tracks a user’s achievements, rewarding them with loyalty points they can trade in for benefits, like advanced workouts and customized product ordering. Gamification makes the app fun, while also driving purchases and brand loyalty.

3. Optimizing the brick-and-mortar shopping experience is another way brands can connect all points on the customer journey. For example, New York ice cream brand Van Leeuwen partnered with PayPal to offer location-based promotions. Users who download the PayPal app and enroll in the program are alerted with coupons and similar promotional offers whenever they get near one of the ice cream shops. Other brands could develop apps that offer coupons when users step into a designated geo-fenced field.

While mobile sites are crucial for brand building, apps have huge potential to greatly improve the retail experience while keeping your brand constantly in customers’ minds. Develop one that customers truly value, and you’ll see sales boost in both your virtual and brick-and-mortar stores.

SEE ALSO: The secrets to successful brand building tomorrow > 

Is retail under existential attack, or merely resetting itself? Are retail demographics irretrievably out of step with digital innovation? Are early adopters sufficiently influencing the late majority? Are retail disruptors short-term optimists, or long-term pessimists?

Like thought bubbles, these questions hang over the daily work lives of retail CIOs. But they needn’t plague decision-makers, either.

Most retailers experiencing positive ROI are doing so by listening as their customers tell them what they care about and want, rather than simply feeding them products and deals they don’t. For these businesses, the question isn’t whether bricks-and-mortar is dead; it’s how physical stores can be transformed using digital to create newer, more exciting, and more profitable experiences.

Take a look at in-store integration. Why should consumers embrace physical shopping? For bricks-and-mortar to thrive, the experience must outmatch its online equivalent. It’s certainly possible; Best Buy attracts geeks who want to try out audio systems using its “man couch.” Barnes & Noble mixes reading with a coffeehouse atmosphere.

Is there a future for other retailers as well? Can GameStop, for example, give brand-loyal gamers exclusive access in the store to try out their pre-orders? Can Sears stop the bleeding by asking customers in the store how they want their products delivered and installed? Can Home Depot deliver bags of cement every morning to the job site, saving contractors a couple hours of unpaid work day after day?

For today’s retailer, success hangs not so much on price as it does on experience. It’s built not only the first time a customer interacts with the brand, but over the long haul, through preferences that are increasingly personalized.

The trick is to discover how to engage consumers in new ways that are valuable to them. Contractors know their customers value them for their work—not their ability to shop. Shoppers are likely to be intrigued when prices are lowered, at least on limited offerings, through Apple Pay and similar mobile payment/digital wallet services. The landscape is wide open for new solutions, as long as retailers gain a new understanding at the intersection of customer desires and digital possibilities.

How do we do this? We listen. App Store feedback, Net Promoter Score surveys, customer service call reports, and in-app feedback are all good ways to gauge customer purchase behavior. Sales and Marketing teams can view this and other explicit feedback and analyze it over time.

Yet implicit feedback counts as well. Gaps in the customer experience are reflections of unmet needs. Customers may even tell you what they see in other brands, or what they wish they had in yours.

We live in an age when data scientists are able to assemble information about user actions to reveal intricate behavioral patterns. Amplitude and other analytical tools are effective drivers of a product’s discovery engine. The use of A/B testing, behavioral cohort analysis, usage pattern correlation, and other techniques gives analysts powerful new insights towards unbounded and bracket retention. These fresh inferences allow teams to iterate products and services in ways that align with the value perception and conversion strategies of the retail brand. It lets them tweak UX, enhance service features, fix bugs, and execute push strategies that reduce drop-offs and further refine product roadmaps.

Today, consumers visiting a brand’s digital touchpoints face information overload. Mweb solutions can be a huge driver for customer acquisition and conversion if done right—but native apps cater to brand use cases and creating higher lifetime value. It’s critical to delineate these two experiences and use them wisely.

Machine learning, as an analytical technique, is making huge strides in this regard. I like what Qubit is doing; the company’s AI is able to understand what outbound actions by a retailer influence results—as well as which actions can be ignored. Its conclusions, for instance, can be used to match activity against promoted products, execute cross-selling, or drive recommended tags in mweb applications.

Brands are also realizing they can offer an elevated, personalized experience by processing customer interaction through their digital streams. The Nordstrom Local concept, recently announced, emphasizes style consulting over in-store stock. Wine, beer, espresso, and even manicures provide a memorable customer service while behind-the-scenes logistics drive product delivery.

Another approach is to enable seamless customer decision-making. One of my colleagues recently referred me to Brandless, an e-tail concept that essentially normalizes food, personal care, cleaning supplies, and other products to a single $3.00 price point. Brandless streamlines the shopper’s purchase decision by learning customer values, preferences, and requirements; it then responds with top-quality generic products that match those preferences. In so doing it’s essentially acting as a surrogate for the customer with regard to ingredients, point of origin, and manufacturing, providing transparency about each product it sells.

All said, it’s both an exciting and challenging time to be in retail. The process of identifying gaps, and then experimenting with what will work in niche segments, is blazing new trails. Eventually, it will redefine the very nature of the customer relationship—and give CIOs answers to all those questions they’ve been asking.

Retailers may have gained a few more secret weapons to compete in today’s tough environment, thanks to many new features announced at this year’s Google I/O.

The Google team announced a multitude of new elements for the Google Home and Google Assistant, all of which have direct application to a retail environment. We were lucky enough to be a partner leading the charge of creating early experiences before the public had access.  

Working with top retail brands such as The Home Depot, Staples, GameStop, and others, we are constantly evaluating ways to take advantage of new technologies to elevate their customer experience. With the new announcements at I/O, the door is opening for forward-thinking retailers to use Google Assistant as an AI platform to connect with customers and even sell more products.

Here are five ways to make that happen.

1) Penetration Across Devices

Potentially the most important announcement coming out of Google I/O was the broad platform outreach. With the addition of iPhone and IoT devices, the Google Assistant is now available on more than 100 million devices. The impact of this is huge, not because of the sheer number of devices, but because of the ability to create an ecosystem effect with your brand.

Imagine your customers being able to simply say “Order me the new call of duty from GameStop” on their iPhone. Then, in a couple of hours their watch gets a notification that your order from GameStop has been shipped. 2 days later, when driving home from work, their car gets a notification and says “Your Call of Duty game has arrived at your doorstep”. They get home and start playing. This is the type of future Google hopes to create.

This kind of experience focuses on the #1 thing customers care about most in retail, convenience. Connected platforms make it more convenient than ever for users to connect with brands at any point throughout their day.

Image: Google

2) Transactions

The main announcement at Google I/O that made this possible was Google letting us know they would now support transactions on Google Assistant. Transactions can happen in a few different ways and create a seamless experience for your customers. Google transactions will support both facilitated and delegated payments.

With facilitated payments, Google will pick up all the heavy lifting for your team. Meaning Google will store the payment credentials for the user, and handle charging the user on your behalf. Google will provide order confirmation and payment UI/UX for you out of the box, in a way that users are comfortable with across all Google Assistant apps, so you won’t have to focus on optimizing the conversion flow for this process.

This also means that getting up and running on Google Assistant can be done with less effort.

If you already have stored payment credentials for a user and want to leverage them, Google will also support your current charge method and facilitate a simple API handoff to your system, all behind the scenes for the user.

Image: Google

3) Universal Carts

With the future moving towards an ecosystem environment, it is important for retailers to invest now towards a universal cart system. Google does not provide any cart storage, so the retailer’s backend will have to store what items are being added to the cart.

If you are a retailer and your website’s cart is different from your mobile app’s cart, this should be a top priority to fix. Consumers are expecting a universal experience across devices, and this expectation will continue to grow with the emergence of platforms like Google Assistant.

Things like carts, wishlists, and preferences are at the top of providing a unified customer experience across platforms.

4) Visual Responses

With the Google Assistant app coming to iPhone, Android Phones, and in the OS of the Pixel, there is a new interaction paradigm being brought to the forefront. This interaction paradigm is focused on both audio and visual responses. For example, when you speak to the Google Assistant app on an iPhone, you will receive both visual and audio responses. Deciding what types of responses during which types of questions should be the primary focus of your conversational interface design efforts. In the example given on stage at I/O, Google showed ordering Panera bread through the Google Assistant app.

In this app, the assistant displayed images in a card style view, with details below, where users are able to scroll through and select which type of food or drinks they want. To make your app powerful, it is appropriate to understand which items are spoken, and which are only displayed.

For instance, does the Assistant respond with “Got it. How about one of these cold drinks?” and not say the names of these drinks? What if a user is instead placing the same order on Google Home where they have access to the Google Home app to potentially see the visual elements, but it isn't guaranteed? And if the app forces the user to pull out their phone to view the drinks and place the order, then doesn’t that defeat the whole value proposition of the Google Home in the first place?

Image: Multiplex

This type of design is very important and the only way to get the right answers for your brand is through testing. In a subsequent article, I will follow up with unique tests and design learnings to help design teams find the best way for users to interact with these multimodal responses.

Performing content heavy tasks such as searching and browsing are still difficult even with the visual cues, but if your search and recommendation algorithms are strong enough to overcome the visual shortcomings of the conversational interface, you can still provide an excellent user experience.

5) Machine Learning

Google is investing big in machine learning, and showcased new TPU chips that allow machine learning algorithms to be computed on large datasets faster than ever before. Although retailers won’t be directly using these chips themselves, it is important to realize that machine learning is a way to gain insights into your customers like never before and if you aren’t exploring it yet, you should be.

Using machine learning algorithms, retailers can provide highly accurate and constantly updated product recommendations, foot-traffic forecasts, demand estimations, customer retention and churn evaluations, and marketing campaign optimizations. In addition, the combination of machine learning and computer vision has enabled highly accurate image recognition. Google demonstrated this usage with the Google Lens application. Using Google Search and location context, users can find locations or events simply by pointing their phone at signs on buildings.

Image: Google

Image recognition within the retail sector can enable customers to find product details or related products just by pointing their camera at an item they like. For example, a customer could go into a store, take a picture of a shirt they like and instantly see images of people wearing the same shirt in different settings, sort of like a virtual mannequin.

In addition, the user could be told things such as the current price, if the store has their size in stock somewhere on the racks, and how many loyalty points they will earn by purchasing the shirt today. As brick and mortar continue to be disrupted by online retailers, these types of experiences are drastically needed to drive in-store traffic. Retailers with this technology can provide today's customer with the same convenience of online shopping, coupled with benefits of shopping in store — i.e., trying on products and being in a fun and social environment.

In conclusion

Google announced a lot of exciting new technology at I/O which can enable customers to interact with your brand like never before. Implementing many of these solutions into your customer experience has the chance to breathe new life into your omnichannel footprint.

One example?

See how Home Depot doubled sales with an award winning omnichannel retail solution.

It’s easy to get analytics from videos that are posted online.

However, until today, there was never an easy way to get analytics reporting from an in-store video.

Imagine if you could get actionable data on who watched your video while shopping in your store.

We’re talking about who watched the video, for how long, along with the gender and age of the people watching your video. All of these data points delivered to you, in real time, without collecting any information from the customer.


This is a question I know many decision makers in retail have asked themselves again and again: how can I measure my ad engagement in a way that is meaningful and actionable? Am I showing shoppers what they are looking for? Am I effectively communicating with my customers as they stroll around from one aisle to another, looking for products or inspiration?

What if there was a simple way to get an answer to these questions in real time?

This is why we built the In-Store AdTracker prototype.

To the average consumer, it’s a video that they watch as they shop at their favorite store. To the retailer, it’s powerful information that helps you make better decisions in a way that you couldn’t before.

Here’s how it works.

In-Store AdTracker – A Powerful, Simple Tool to Measure Ad Engagement


We built a simple proof of concept using Google Mobile Vision API. Basically, we created a tracker software that can be installed on any Android device featuring a built-in camera. Smart TVs, monitors, all-in-one computers, tablets, phablets – you name it.

Our proof of concept is simple. You install the In-Store AdTracker on any compatible device and then you play any video in a fullscreen mode on it. Then the AdTracker does what is supposed to do: it measures the level of engagement people have with the ad.

The tracker reports on the average time spent by a user with an ad; it tracks whether people smile while watching the ad, as well as the demographics of the people watching the ad – like age bracket or gender.

Here’s a video of how this works.

Let’s go through a specific example and see what type of information you could automatically have access to.

Let’s say you’re a store that sells celebrity merchandise. T-shirts, mugs, posters, original autographs, etc. In this business, as you know, stars rise and fall overnight. Hit songs dictate who is in the spotlight and what people are talking about at any given time. Of course, you can always look at Billboard 100 and figure out who is at the top, but the question remains: in your city, among your customers, who is the most popular star? What type of merchandise should you stock for?

Our AdTracker can give you this answer without you lifting a finger.

Let’s suppose that the top five songs on Billboard 100 this week are the following:

  1. Rihanna - Needed Me
  2. Ariana Grande - Into You
  3. Adele - Hello
  4. Taylor Swift - Blank Space
  5. Sia - Cheap Thrills

If you want to only stock merchandise for two of these five stars and get the biggest bang for the buck, how would you do it?

Let’s say you will play each of these videos in your store on the same screen on a loop and you want to see how engaged your in-store shoppers are.


1. The AdTracker can aggregate the number of people who watched each video

The type of report you could get in your inbox looks something like this:


If you looked at this graph based on the number of people who watched the videos in the last hour, you could conclude that Sia and Taylor Swift are probably the best stars you should get merchandise for.

But if you wanted to know a little more about the people who stopped and watched the videos, you can get that, too. Are they males or females?


2. The gender of the people watching an ad


In this example, you can see that more males than females stopped and watched the videos. So make sure you stock your inventory appropriately!

As we all know, the age of a consumer impacts what they buy, the price tag they’re able to afford, and how often they return to a retail store. Which brings us to the next question you may have...


3. The age brackets of users watching an ad


Not surprisingly for a celebrity merchandise store, in this example, we see that the most engaged users were within the 16-20 bracket. They also have the lowest budget across all age brackets. So you better stock up on lower-end-priced merchandise!

A big indication of user engagement is the time they spend interacting with a digital product, whether that’s a site, a video, or an ad. And this brings us to the next thing we can automatically determine with our AdTracker...


4. The average time a user spends watching an ad


How cool is this? Now you know that the largest number of people watch Cheap Thrills and Blank Space and that the same users spend the largest amount of time on these videos. That is a recipe for success: number of people + engagement level.

Lastly, you may be interested in learning at what time of day people are most engaged with your in-store videos. That allows you to prioritize what videos are broadcast when and whether you want to run any time-sensitive promotions.

The AdTracker can capture that information as well!


5. Hourly views breakdown


By now, you’ve seen what this simple AdTracker is capable of. In summary, it can track any of the following:

  • How many people are watching your ads
  • The gender of the people watching your ads
  • Age brackets
  • Level of engagement by time spent on ad
  • Hourly views breakdown

But if you’re not in the celebrity merchandise business, you may still be a little skeptical, wondering how this can benefit your business.

How can retail companies leverage the AdTracker?


Traditionally, the primary markets for video ads are TV and online sites where users must watch the ads before interacting with the content on the page.

But these are not the only places where video ads can be consumed. In fact, various companies small and big have found alternative channels and social contexts in which ads are being served, like:

  • Inside a store
  • Airport lounges
  • Waiting room for doctor’s appointments
  • While waiting in line at a store or food chain
  • Some bars have even installed monitors above urinals

No matter what situation customers may find themselves in, quite often there is “dead time” when distractions of any kind – including video ads – are more than welcome.

With the AdTracker, marketers can begin leveraging video ads and start collecting critical data about who watches these ads, for how long, and how the audience reacts to these video ads.

No more walking in the dark.

No more guessing.

No more uncertainty.

With the In-Store AdTracker, marketers can tell for sure if their efforts are working or not. You can easily determine how effective your strategies are and if your customers like what you are showing them.

And the coolest part? With our in-store AdTracker, all data is updated in real time and available to you on your phone, laptop or desktop.

The Apple Watch

If you are a human being, you have heard of Apple. And if you are even remotely connected to reality, you know that it is not just a fruit (as if getting us kicked out of the Garden of Eden would ever merit it being accepted as just a fruit) but also one of the major tech brands of our time. Apple keeps coming out with ridiculous gadgets that NO ONE will use (according to ‘experts’), and then in a year or two they’ve either created or redesigned a booming market. And once again, they’ve come up with a gadget that’s being disparaged as ‘doomed to fail’ (realistic translation: ‘about to take over the universe’). The Apple Watch.


What it’s All About

Released earlier this year, Apple is touting the gadget as their “most personal device yet”. It straps onto your wrist and instead of getting your mobile phone out every time you need to check the time, you can just look at the Apple Watch. Nice, right? But that’s not all! It’s also got a couple of built-in sensors that measure your body’s activity, such as heart rate and steps taken. If you’re feeling very romantic, or angry I suppose, you can send a copy of your heartbeat to another Apple Watch user, and they’ll feel your beat against their wrist. Sweet. Or creepy. By setting up Apple Pay, the device can be used for fly-by payment, and with the help of your iPhone it facilitates navigation, lets you make and take phone calls, send and receive SMSs, chat with Siri, and send dirty doodles to your friends. Now when you see someone wandering along the street speaking to their wrist, you won’t automatically know they’re a Russian spy. They could be one of Apple’s trendy early adopters.


How it’s Working

Aside from providing punctual shoppers, the Apple Watch has the potential to empower retailers with shopping apps designed specifically for use on the device. Though a few mobile apps can be used directly on the Apple Watch, the cross-over is neither seamless nor particularly effective, and so those with an ear to the ground (What’s that, you say? Doomed to fail, i.e. taking over the universe?) have engaged top iOS app development companies to design their own Apple Watch apps which complement their mobile apps.



Target’s Apple Watch app lets their shoppers build shopping lists and then directs them to their items once in-store, all via the Apple Watch. Users can decide quantity of items they’re adding, and then check items off their list as they pick them up – is there anything more satisfying? When an item on the list is nearby, a reminder pops up, and directions are provided to the item. The app also presents some basic store info such as opening times and tells users when deals are available on items they’ve listed.



This app delivers scannable movie tickets to the Apple Watch in bar code format. The ticketing app provides show times, guarantees tickets, and lets users watch trailers on their mobile devices, and then allows them to bypass ticket lines with one flick of the wrist.



Kohl’s Apple Watch app functions similarly to its mobile app, allowing customers to track their savings offers. These offers can be scanned from Apple Watch at checkout


The app is designed to provide customers with guidance to the exact item they are searching for. After browsing and bookmarking items online, the app quickly identifies and directs in-store shoppers to the product destination. With navigation capabilities, the app can find out-of-stock items at any of the four closest JCPenney stores within the user’s location, ensuring that customers never find themselves without the items they want - Source


What’s it to You?

Look, if you don’t know the importance of pandering to the iCrowd, I’m not sure I can help you. I know, you’re rolling your eyes, but if they went out and bought an Apple Watch they’re definitely on the consumer train, and best you provide a station. A lot of the tools retailers can access with the Apple Watch are already available via mobile applications, but a killer mobile app is no reason to rest on your laurels. Let me highlight a couple of ideas:

  • Discounts & coupons: right to their wrist. Couldn’t be easier. Make sure your ten-minute-only deal is received in time.
  • Shopping lists: I know you can type these up on your phone, but it’s difficult holding a mobile phone in one hand and your basket in the other. I’m constantly throwing mine around stores, and every time I drop a product one of the sales people frowns threateningly at me. It’s awkward. So go on, make it a little easier.
  • Heartbeat tracker: every time Steve walks past the radio controlled helicopters, his heart rate increases… is he scared of flying? Or is his inner-child begging to play? Perhaps a coupon sent to his Apple Watch would be the sign he needs.
  • Navigation: Apple Watch can navigate your shoppers through your store with little taps to their wrists. So, one, they’ll find what they want. And two, you won’t have a store full of Nav Voices providing irritating, if genteel, vocal directions. Turn left, now…
  • Advertising: lunch time? Well, isn’t that a convenient time to pop up a picture of something mouthwatering onto the back of everyone’s hand?
  • Goals: think of the benefits to your loyalty program with trackable spend goals flashing up on your customer’s Apple Watches. 1,000 steps in-store - well, how about a discount? 10th visit in a month – could we offer you a free latte? Only $50 more dollars and you’re gold level!
  • Easy payment: Apple Pay makes paying as easy as swiping your wrist past a scanner. A nice way to put pesky budgeting thoughts out of one’s mind.
  • Validation: those with Apple Watches are going to predominantly use stores that make their new gadget shine. They just are.

The sky’s the limit. Creating your own partnership with Apple’s products is a recipe for success, so if you like money, perhaps now’s the time to spend a little at a mobile development agency and design you own spectacular iCrowd pleaser.

Mobile usage is at an all-time high, as evidenced by the fact that the guy who sells fruit at my nearest traffic light has a cooler phone than I do. Or, if you prefer, the statistics telling us that nearly a quarter of the world’s population is smartphone equipped and that there are currently about as many cell-phone subscriptions as people on earth. eMarketer estimates that by 2018 over a third of worldwide consumers will be using smartphones. While there is fear that mobile expansion may negatively impact in-store spending by encouraging online shopping, savvy retailers are making use of mobile app development services to make mobile trends work for them.

Online Shopping Hammering In-Store Market

‘Showrooming’ is a concept that strikes fear into the hearts of many brick-and-mortar retailers. Bargain-hunters using a store as their personal fitting room and then buying the item online sounds like a pretty great idea, until you consider the fact that the retailer has to pay for that stock, rent the premises, and compensate their in-store staff. While a few benevolent souls may trust in each shopper’s goodness to do the right thing, the wary (read wise) merchant has some tricks up his sleeve.

How to Win Back the Customer

1) In-Store Apps


A majority of shoppers surveyed have said that they would prefer to use the corresponding retailer’s mobile app when in-store. Providing customers with multiple viewing and purchasing channels means that you get the girl who likes to walk down the street, parading her shopping bags like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, as well as the lazy and/or socially challenged consumers who couldn’t be bothered actually picking the item up, walking to the counter, speaking to a real human being, and making their purchase outside of comfortable, impersonal virtual reality. Geotagging can tie in-app purchases to users currently in-store, so providing a unified online and in-store shopping experience doesn’t have to create unnecessary channel competition. Stores without their own nifty app may find their customers logging onto competitor sites and making their way into the friendly cyberspace of another store.

2) Bargaining Chip

Some stores are making use of mobile offers and coupons – and this can be pretty ingenious. Not only do bargains encourages shoppers to enter the store, but using beacons, some stores are able to track when customers are in-store, and what products they’re considering. A well-timed ‘valid-for-the-next-ten-minutes’ coupon for the shower radio you don’t need but, oh, so want, could be all the push required. A sign really. The universe obviously understands that you do, in fact, need it.

3) Information Overload

QR codes have tickled me right from the get-go. Well, actually, just the barcode scanning app on my phone gets me excited. You mean I can use my phone’s camera to snap up those codes, and then all of the related information pops up on my phone without ever having to ask anyone for help? Yes, please. Providing customers with a little bit of extra information that they’re not Googling for might be all that’s needed to push the sale. It also stops them browsing competitor sites for the very same product. The more user-friendly information, the better – some retailers are adding in-depth information to clearly defined specs, with consumer reviews as an added bonus. There’s nothing like a hundred people gushing about how much they love a product to boost a consumer’s purchase confidence.

4) Find It Fast


Mobile You-Are-Here boards. Google Maps for stores. There are, of course, many lovely people out there who enjoy chatting to strangers and don’t mind asking for directions, but then there are men. Mobile apps that provide in-store navigation might actually bring down divorce rates. Giving customers quick directions to specific products not only means Steve actually buys what Jill asked for, it means that retailers have additional information on what their consumers are shopping for. This takes us back to marketing, and so when Steve suddenly gets a 10% coupon code for Essie nail varnish, instead of purchasing the cheap no-name brand that looks, sort of, like it might be the same, his retailer does him the favor of keeping him off the couch for the night. Steve will probably never know, but Jill might, and both Steve and Jill will be back in the future.

5) Queue No More!

And how about mobile payment options and door-to-door delivery? Some retailers give their customers the option of paying for what they want from their store via their mobile phone, and having their purchases shipped to their homes. The ultimate in convenience, and likely to pull customers away from competitors who might be just that one step behind. Moreover, by tying loyalty programs into their mobile apps, stores are encouraging their customers to use their apps while shopping in-store, effective both for driving sales and gathering data about customers.

6) Make a Wish…

Now, I’m an online shopper. I am that lazy, socially challenged person who would prefer not being required to wander from aisle to aisle, remember to bring a trolley to carry the items I choose, and make friendly small talk with the sales staff. If I could work it so that I never had to leave my house, I would. For this, my friends and family despair, suggest therapy, and try to make outside activities like hiking and canoeing sound fun. I’m not buying it. But there are a few ingenious mobile applications that have caught even my slothful attention. In-store wish lists - ooh! Sometimes I'm in a bad mood, and don’t feel like stopping to consider whatever’s caught my eye. Or I'm late. Or the queues are long. Oh, the many woes of the outside world. But if I can note it to my wish list, you’ve got me! I’ll probably be back tomorrow because I’ll think about it all night and be desperate to own it by sunrise. Additionally, if there’s an easy little QR code that I can quickly scan for more information and customer reviews, my obsession will have plenty of fodder, thus ensuring I’m not sidetracked by Pinterest.

Success Stories & Inspiration

Speaking of Pinterest, Nordstrom has been tracking pins to spot trends and then using this data to promote trending products in-store. And IKEA is using image-recognition technology to give customers the chance to scan their catalogs on mobile devices and view 360-degree images of their furniture. IKEA mobile users can even ‘virtually’ place furniture in their homes, helping choose product types, colors, and sizes. Staples offers an app where you can buy wholesale products all from the comfort of your phone. Walgreens offers an innovative app that provides prescription refill by scan, QuickPrints for ordering photo prints via smartphone, and in some US states 24-hour access to doctors via smartphone cameras. And Neiman Marcus’ SoLoMo App connects customers with sales staff and provides updates about new products, promotions, and trends. Sales staff benefit because they have access to customer information such as Facebook photos, purchase history, and favorite items, and customers profit from the personalized, individual attention. These innovations provide some pretty tough competition

Go Boldly Forth, and Bring the Customers with You

Be it wish lists or QR codes, coupons or navigation, the benefits that retail mobile app development services can offer retailers are tremendous. Innovative stores are capturing the imaginations of their in-store and virtual customers alike making shopping more fun for the gregarious shopaholics and appealing even to those who would prefer to use only text-based communication and have nothing but unnatural light touch their skin – make sure you’re not left behind! Any day now I’ll be able to tap my fruit and veg order into my mobile and pick it up from the local traffic light hawker in one quick-and-easy drive-by.

How can we help?

YML believes that all retailers need to embrace mobile head on, especially with online & offline experiences. Contact us and we'll tell you more about we've helped large retailers embrace & innovate in mobile.


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