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Making the connection

How fashion retailers are capitalising on the growing world of apps.

As the mobile becomes an extra limb for many shoppers, smart retailers are embracing the smartphone. It is not just about ensuring your transactional website is mobile-enabled, it is about understanding how more and more of today’s shoppers are using their phone as a tool while browsing on the physical high street.

Apps that can access additional information about a product, share pictures, compare prices, register a user’s location or allow shoppers to pay for goods through their mobile are rising in popularity. Many retailers see apps as a risk to their business. They worry that they will lose trade and be forced to trim margins if shoppers can easily compare prices, for example.

“Retailers are concerned about show-rooming, that once a shopper has touched the product and had the experience they will turn around and buy it from Asos or even the retailer’s own online store,” says Mary Wallace, from IT firm EMC Consulting.

“They are missing the point. It’s about joining up what you already have and about creativity via the technology the shopper has in their hand.”

Fashion retailers are beginning to learn how they can interact with app services to drive sales and develop promotions. A number of major stores, including John Lewis and Debenhams, now offer shoppers free Wi-Fi in recognition of how important apps are becoming.

Potentially the most widely used apps in stores are QR code readers, such as RedLaser and ShopSavvy, which enable smartphones to read the black and white labels that have sprung up all over the high street in the past two years.

QR codes allow shoppers to access more information on a product via their phone. They can direct shoppers to a transactional mobile site from a catalogue, poster or magazine or provide links to discounts or review sites for the relevant product with comments from other shoppers.

As customers have become more familiar with the technology, click-throughs have increased. John Lewis said it saw a 300% uplift in site visits via QR codes from autumn last year to May and June of this year.

But for some, the experience is disappointing. “QR codes are just a very simple way of entering a URL. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and you just end up with a product page from a website,” says Nigel Grant, brand director at menswear brand Pretty Green.

Some retailers have instead tried to create a more seamless and exciting experience by working with Blippar or Aurasma – apps that deliver additional information or pictures via augmented reality when a user hovers a smartphone over an ad or magazine page without the need for a QR code.

John Lewis teamed up with Aurasma to enable shoppers to see instructional videos and demonstrations if they pointed their phone at images of product in the store. John Lewis marketing assistant Elinor Wilkinson says: “We’re seeing extremely high click-through rates across the campaigns. This technology is right at the forefront of digital marketing.”

There is no doubt that mobile apps can offer a range of creative opportunities. Retailers are also experimenting with Instagram, the picture-sharing app, by encouraging shoppers to take photos of their outfits and then tagging up items that can be bought. Meanwhile, geolocation app Foursquare is used by retailers to encourage shopper visits by offering prizes to those who ‘check in’ via the app at their stores.

Other less playful third-party apps are merging the benefits of mobile sales with the in-store experience. Pretty Green is working with Simply Tap, a mobile payment app. Users record their payment details and delivery address and, when they want to buy something, they zap its QR code, tap in a short product code or just take a picture of the item to identify it, before confirming their order.

Pretty Green used the app to extend sales of vinyl records in its stores by putting codes on posters in the window so shoppers could buy the records even when the store was shut. It has also used the app to sell accessories via Facebook and exclusive tickets to music-themed events.

However, it is not just a payment method. The app allows the retailer to build a relationship with shoppers and target marketing more effectively. And for smaller retailers it is a way to access the kind of tool major retailers are developing for themselves. Added to this is the fact that, because the app is used by a number of retailers, it is possible to access data about shoppers’ behaviour in the wider market.

Grant says: “If someone is doing everything they can to come up with cool ways to engage with you and your customers, why not use that? Simply Tap is an early adopter of what I believe will end up being the norm. It means customers are just a few clicks away from buying something.”

Shirt retailer Thomas Pink is also working with Simply Tap. “It’s a whole new platform by which our customers can shop and we think it is very easy to engage with,” says head of marketing Alex Field.

Thomas Pink is planning to test the app for the launch of its sponsorship of the British & Irish Lions rugby team in October. The retailer is taking over an old pub in St James, London, for a series of launch events and plans to put up framed posters featuring product and a QR code. Attendees will be incentivised to download the Simply Tap app by being given the chance to win various prizes and can then use it to buy product by scanning codes on the posters.

Field believes such ‘mobile till’ apps have the potential to add new selling opportunities for retailers. “It’s flexible and mobile and so you can offer it anywhere you can put a QR code,” he says.

He foresees using it on posters in busy locations such as airport lounges or stations where people have time to waste and potentially a desire to shop but there is no Thomas Pink store nearby. It’s a similar idea to the one Tesco adopted in South Korea, where commuters at a train station could buy household goods by scanning codes next to pictures of them on a poster designed to look like a supermarket shelf.

However, Simply Tap does not yet enable shoppers to scan goods and take them home from a store directly.

That is something that PayPal InStore is one of the first apps to offer, and which is now being used by Aurora Fashions, owner of womenswear retailers Oasis, Warehouse and Coast.

The app allows a shopper to scan the barcode of an item in the store, and then provides them with a barcode, which allows a shop assistant to take payment from the customer’s PayPal account.

However, Wallace counters that the drawback of PayPal’s app is that it doesn’t offer a better service than simply walking to the till and paying in the normal way. She says: “Shoppers will ask ‘what’s the point?’”

However, one potential benefit is that it allows shoppers who have bought an item online using their PayPal account to get a refund or swap an item in-store.

It is all part of building a more seamless shopping experience between the online and offline worlds. Put simply, retailers need to be where their shoppers are and if their customers are playing with apps on their phone, then retailers need to be part of that game.

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