Why mobile-first is crucial for omnichannel retailers

Big brand high street retailers have been no stranger to unflattering headlines including such phrases as declining profits, job losses and store closures. There’s no denying that the growth of e-commerce has been a factor, but it’s not the whole picture. Many of these big brands, such as Toys R Us, Debenhams or House of Fraser, have or had e-commerce offerings. Maybe, then, the whole go-to debate of bricks-and-mortar vs. online clicks has become a little inadequate?

While consumers have never been so confident in parting with their cash online, issues have arisen concerning customer experience, item collections and returns. People enjoy physical stores; they like being able to touch the merchandise and bring it home after they’ve purchased it. As such, some online retailers are actually trying to establish their own physical presence, but, importantly, they are still ramping up their online platforms too. As a consequence of this, the omnichannel retail trend has emerged.

For a customer, omnichannel delivers a consistent and uniform experience, whether they’re shopping online, from a desktop or mobile device, by telephone, or in a brick-and-mortar store. For the retailers, it means taking a hybrid approach to selling as well as a technology shift around their operations.

Why go mobile-first?

As omnichannel retail matures, mobile has emerged as the primary channel which connects online and physical consumer experiences. Taking into account how smartphones have become closely linked with how people shop, it’s no wonder that some retailers are shifting to a mobile-first approach.

Doddle, the parcel pick-up service, is a case in point. With more than 100 retail partners, including ASOS, Amazon and Net-a-Porter, it enables its customers to pick up or return their online shopping in a network of click and collect locations near their offices. Some traditional stores, such as Debhanames, also host Doddle concessions to benefit from attracting new customers flows.

Central to being able to offer a consistently high level of customer service, is mobility. As such, it runs the majority of its front-of-house business on mobile devices and apps.

Taking a mobile-first approach to digital transformation

Brands must think mobile-first. So, where and how should mobile become part of the digital transformation conversation?

“We typically do Android applications and iOS applications,” explained Gary O’Connor, CTO at Doddle. “In both cases, we use Couchbase which has a couple of key benefits for us; one is the fact that it’s a NoSQL database so that flexibility around data models works really well for us.

“Second is from a mobile perspective; it’s got some really nice features around data synchronisation. So in a world where mobile connectivity isn’t absolute — whether online or off-line — Couchbase takes care of getting the data between the mobile device and the back end for us.”

Mobile device management

Doddle is not alone; many retailers are starting to think about how to put the right information in the right place. There is a crossover with other parts of an organisation. Embracing mobile can mean better aligned with the lines of business that are looking for ways to drive efficiency out of employees. This can manifest itself, as it has in Doddle’s case, in enabling simple workflows for providing access to documents to more complex applications designed to streamline, or even reimagine, business processes.

“I think there are common themes which help you stay focused on where we need to go,” said O’Connor. “For example, I think in some ways the reduced screen means that you have to be very targeted about what you put on the screen.”

Doddle has built out some capabilities around what it calls Tasks, which is where it can automatically drop a task on to a handheld in order to validate a concern in the business; such as enquiring if an item is still in stock.

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Since Doddle bases all of its core operations and apps in the cloud, managing its mobile fleet requires a cloud-based EMM solution. As a result, the company selected MobileIron and its technology partner, Appurity, to help it deploy and manage employee devices and develop key line-of-business (LOB) apps. The company currently manages a mix of mobile devices, including Samsung Galaxy Xcover 3 for delivery drivers and rugged Zebra devices in their stores.

“Mobile device management is an area that’s taken a bit of time and thought,” said O’Connor. “I think, by now, it’s a pretty well-trodden path but being able to get to a place where we can remotely push software in a steady way and be able to deliver an appropriate level of change so you can do the update processes without breaking the retail operations was something we’ve worked quite hard on.”

Testing and updating mobile apps

Mobile-first approaches have influenced how applications are developed, deployed, and managed. In contrast to traditional enterprise apps, mobile apps are often more lightweight and agile, with functionality typically focused on a relatively narrow business use case. They usually have a simple user interface and are subject to ongoing updates, based on business requirements and user feedback.

“A lot of our mobile capability is exposed through rugged devices; for example, Zebra handhelds that our delivery drivers use,” explained O’Connor. “So we’ve built an automated test rig for those where we automatically run nightly tests against software down to the point the bar code scan is triggered at the right point and so on.

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“So we have invested in automation in the tech process to make sure that we are comfortable that as new releases come out and changes are applied to the platform, that platform is still doing what it’s meant to do.”

Retailers have long understood the importance of mobile, but many still aren’t making it a key priority. There’s still time—but not much—for brands to adopt a mobile-first approach to digital transformation and be on their way to delivering more authentically mobile experiences and build new revenue streams.

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Andrew Ross

As a reporter with Information Age, Andrew Ross writes articles for technology leaders; helping them manage business critical issues both for today and in the future