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Think of omnichannel, and two modes often come to mind. There’s ecommerce, and in-store shopping. For brands in both modes, the goal is often to connect the two, and create an experience that fits with how consumers are looking to shop.
A new study out Wednesday offers a reminder that there’s a third piece of the equation: Mobile. The 2023 Omnichannel Leadership Report from retail platform NewStore found that one in three consumers prefer mobile shopping apps to all other channels. Among shoppers who choose apps or websites or brick-and-mortar, the primary reason is that they prefer the experience, the study noted.
Mobile apps are also a key component for retailers at the forefront of omnichannel operations. NewStore deployed a team of mystery shoppers to audit the omnichannel capabilities of 300 retail brands. The top brands were Hibbett Sports, Shoe Carnival, Bloomingdale's, Sephora and Lululemon. Each of these outfits has a mobile app, with functionalities ranging from in-store scanning at Bloomingdale’s to drops that provide early access to new items at Lululemon. In all, 33% of brands that NewStore reviewed had mobile shopping apps.
As is the case with many other aspects of life that are run through our phones, mobile technology can facilitate shopping in unique ways that aren't available in the other modes.
“Consumer apps are the glue of any brand’s omnichannel strategy because they give shoppers the experience of a flagship store in the palm of their hand,” said Phil Granof, CMO at NewStore. “They do this by bringing together the best aspects of the online and in-store experiences. At the most basic level, because apps run directly on a device, they are faster, more responsive, and easier to use than a mobile website. They can also tap into the native hardware and software capabilities of a device to incorporate features like push notifications, utilize the phone’s camera and enable location data.”
Enhancing the shopper experience
The reminder comes at an opportune time. The shopping experience is constantly evolving, and this year has been no different. Many consumers emerged from a more home-centered lifestyle to return to shopping in stores. Yet, after two years in which the use of ecommerce increased among shoppers and stores integrated more digital capabilities into their operations, many people want to cross between the online and offline modes.
Mobile shopping apps can be a tool that augments each mode. For example, shoppers may use the web for initial research on an item. It’s a good source of discovery, as nothing additional has to be downloaded, and they don’t have to leave their house. But once they’ve discovered a brand, mobile is a good source for conversion, Granof said. It’s within apps where they can find a more personalized and interactive shopping experience. Granof said branded apps offer the opportunity to present product lookbooks, custom product recommendations, branded content and more.
Apps also give brands an opportunity to create a sense of community, Granof said. Many retailers have embraced the ability to extend exclusive offers to product drops or seasonal promotions, as the study found that 89% of branded apps provide access to loyalty information.
“Customers get access to new items or deals while the brand is able to convert them into a loyal brand advocate. It’s a win, win,” Granof said.
By providing a connection point to the web that’s available in our pocket, apps can also enhance the in-store experience. For one, they provide a tool for product research. Granof offered the example of an environmentally conscious shopper.
“Before buying an item, a shopper may want to scan a QR code to determine if the product is made from recycled or eco-friendly materials, and this is very easy to do with an app,” Granof said.
It’s not only consumers who can benefit from mobile tools. Equipping in-store associates can also enhance the experience. Increasingly, consumers expect it. NewStore found that more than half of consumers think store associates should be equipped with a mobile device to help them shop. At the same time, 32% of store associates it surveyed use mobile devices.
“A store associate with an iPhone never has to leave a customer’s side,” Granof said. “They can immediately check inventory, sell items that are not in the store, manage a BOPIS order, or simply check out a customer on the spot. Gone are the days of waiting in line at a cash wrap. All of this benefits the associate because it allows them to provide a more personalized experience, which leads to happy customers and increased sales.”
An app's ability to harness the functions of a phone also plays a role here. Communication tools and the ability to access location data can help to open up a line of communication between associate and consumer, Granof said.
Using location data, “the app UX can automatically adapt when a customer is shopping at a physical location,” Granof said. “This enables features that can improve how shoppers learn about products, pick up online orders and interact with store associates.
Granof offers an example: “What if you could ping an associate from the changing room to let them know you’d like a product in a different size or color, and then follow up with them after you’ve left to order an item that complements your new purchase? That is all possible with a mobile app that is integrated with a brand’s digital and physical channels.”
Employees could also use a mobile device to access information. They would be able to easily look up a customer’s profile and contact them directly to share information about new products and sales, or even when an out of stock item is available again. Increasingly, brands want to deliver a white-glove experience in stores, and mobile can allow be a tool toward bringing it to fruition. The study found that brands it categorized as basic – of moderate price and quality – were the largest adopters of mobile apps, suggesting its potential as a tool to elevate service.
Connect the data first
A fully connected experience is a great milestone to work toward, but it doesn't come automatically. Granof offers a reminder that these mobile experiences are only possible when retail brands have done the work to unify physical and digital channels. It's this work on the infrastructure level that enables the omnichannel experience, and many still have a ways to go. For instance, 31% of brand websites surveyed show store inventory availability. Providing an accurate view of stock across channels is one of the ways that experiences are integrated, enabling a view not only of what's actually available to consumers, but also what items may need to be set aside for buy online pickup in store (BOPIS) orders.
“Unless associates have access to the real-time data that makes omnichannel possible, simply putting a device in their hand isn’t going to move the needle,” Granof said.
In the end, the data forms a dividing line. It's what separates the multichannel brands that have operations set up in multiple modes from those who are omnichannel, and offer an integrated experience that enables customers to access their products whenever they want to, wherever they are.
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The company raised $10 million in a Series A to build on work with Bloomingdale's and Dior.
As retailer set out to achieve omnichannel goals, they work to connect ecommerce and in-person retail. But consider each of the channels on their own, and it becomes clear that they both have advantages when it comes to the shopping experience.
Ecommerce boasts the convenience of getting an item delivered to a customer’s door, and a vast assortment. Brick-and-mortar stores allow shoppers to casually browse for items that stand out to them, and more fully visualize an item before buying it.
So the question is: How do you find a middle ground that offers the best of both?
Emperia believes virtual stores offer an answer. The company has put its platform to work with Bloomingdale’s, Dior, Ralph Lauren and Lacoste to create immersive experiences.
Accessible through a laptop, mobile device or TV, the virtual stores can be accessed anywhere, while offering shoppers the ability to move through a store and browse.
In the digital world, the in-store experience can also be taken to new creative levels, as untethering from the physical world can take shopping to new settings that accent a brand’s story. In the Bloomingdale’s holiday store, for example, the Ralph Lauren section was in a holiday forest, while Nespresso was at a Parisian cafe. Chanel’s experience took shoppers to the moon.
Emperia now has new fuel for its own rocketship. The company said Wednesday that it raised $10 million in a Series A round. This funding will help to grow its 40-person, 14-country team, and further develop its virtual store platform and corresponding data suite.
The round was led by Base10 Partners with participation from Daphni (via its retail fund Dastore), Sony Innovation Fund, Background Capital, Stanford Capital Partners and Concept Ventures.
Bloomingdale's Chanel store, on the moon. (Photo via Emperia)
Emperia was founded in 2019 by fashion and retail expert Olga Dogadkina and VR technologist Simonas Holcmann.
“While working in fashion, it became clear to me that e-commerce was the future, but 2D websites were merely a tool that enabled an online purchase, but were lacking the customer journey and story-telling that brands are after,” Dogadkina said. “The solution was to bridge that gap, with the aim of making virtual experiences into the future of brands’ long-term ecommerce strategy.”
Emperia’s platform provides the technology and visual infrastructure that architect the virtual stores. Importantly, it is all undergirded by data. This shows how a digital experience can change the data equation for retailers, even as they keep features of an in-store experience. Emperia tracks movement within the store, demographics, behavioral patterns, important steps of the purchase journey events and more. Analytics are used in layout, design, user experience and merchandise placement.
This allows Emperia to continuously optimize the virtual stores, all while measuring against the KPIs of brand and retail clients.
The result is that the virtual stores can become revenue drivers, Emperia said. The company said its platform increased conversion rates 73% when compared to regular ecommerce sites for its customers, and the average return on investment is 750%.
Following the funding round, Emperia sees a new opportunity to leverage virtual store data to provide retailers with new personalization tools. It is also working with partners in the ecosystem to bring a variety of virtual ecommerce capabilities under one roof.
Base10 Partners’ Luci Fonseca said the firm was “absolutely stunned” by the team and early traction.
“The more we spoke to customers, the more we saw that Emperia is on the edge of a global revolution on how consumers interact with retailers and brands,” Fonseca said. “One way to think about Emperia is through the lens of ‘web 2.5’—it is a device-agnostic bridge for brands to engage with a new generation of consumers while driving real commerce.”
What it means for ecommerce
Emperia shows that virtual experiences don’t have to require VR headsets. Offering access to stores through a mobile or laptop device brings immersive elements to customers where they already shop. Meanwhile, experience design elements that mimic in-store shopping offer a format that is familiar. The goal is the same as ever: to meet their needs and even delight them with the unexpected.