Gap

What Will it Take to Improve the Mobile Shopping Experience?

The eye-popping statistics that permeated this month’s eTail West event made one thing clear: growth in mobile usage and mobile transactions has exceeded just about everyone's expectations. That’s cause for celebration for companies like online travel agency hotwire.com whose head of mobile, Melissa Matross, spoke about how the company has “leaned into the mobile web” from the beginning. Yet many companies are only now discovering unique challenges as their customers pursue all things mobile at escalating rates.

The dizzying array of devices that have entered the mobile ecosystem are bringing unprecedented complexity to the design process in particular. Responsive design is gaining favor with many marketers as it allows them to instantly adapt websites to device differences and resolve compatibility issues. Dell views responsive design as a mandate, since, according to its director of global mobile, Brandon McGee, designing specific applications for all of its business units in 160 countries and across all mobile devices is “impossible and not scalable.”

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Domenic Venneri, lead designer for street wear brand Stussy, agrees. According to Venneri, responsive design offers Stussy’s web designers the ultimate freedom to do what they do best within optimized parameters.

Marketers are also tracking a closer behavioral alignment between desktops and tablets, even as the latter's status as a "mobile" device remains an area of contention. Disney VP Elissa Margolis referred to this synergy between desktop and tablets as a "fat finger" sensibility. Mr. McGee cited it as a reason why companies can get away with using "slightly optimized" versions of their websites for tablets.

According to Tom Leighton, CEO of the cloud platform Akamai, mobile users expect sites to load in five seconds or less and the 30 fastest internet sites load in only two. By contrast, the top 30 mobile sites clock in at a sluggish average of nine seconds, a rate that compares with where traditional websites were in 2001. He cited several reasons, but emphasized that mobile is operating off of an infrastructure that was built for transmitting voices rather than bandwidth-hungry, multi-media content.

Unfortunately, shoppers' expectations have not dialed down accordingly. Mr. Leighton cautioned that abandonment rates escalate with every second, with four-five seconds marking a precipitous drop-off. Adding to the pressure, shoppers increasingly expect mobile sites to offer the rich experiences and full functionality that they've grown accustomed to on their desktops.

Dave Borrowman, senior director of product management at Gap, summed up the challenge by saying the mobile experience can no longer be reduced; it must be optimized.

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Marketers are pursuing a variety of strategies for mitigating mobile pain points, including adding bigger response buttons and text fields, providing optimized keyboards for numeric entries and ensuring that, as they move between devices, visitors' shopping experiences pick up where they left off.

Read Carol's other E tail West articles:

Retailers Stretch Social Media Strategies

Disney Store Makes Digital Magic.

Prescient Points from E tail West. Wrap-up of Carol's favorite moments from the show.

Retail Wire ran an edited version of this article. Check out the discussion.

Retailers Ride the Wake

Given the ongoing predictions of over-saturation in physical retail, its sheer scale in the U.S. is hard to fathom, with the top three dollar chains alone slated to hang more than 1,300 new shingles in the U.S. this year.

Although some retailers still see plenty of wide open space, others are lured by competitors’ established footprints. Are they stalking or just fishing where the fish are? 

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With 4,400 locations, Dollar Tree is the third-largest chain in the mega-scale world of dollar retailing, while Dollar General and Family Dollar, with store counts of 11,000 and 7,000 respectively, certainly have a stronghold on the number one and two spots. In earnings calls, Dollar Tree’s President and CEO, Bob Strasser has been quick to point out the chain’s unique positioning as a “variety store” that takes advantage of opportunistic buys rather than relying heavily on static assortments. This opportunism extends to its real-estate strategy as well, as the company makes no bones about intentionally locating near Walmart or Target stores in order to ensure steady traffic.

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Less-discussed sources of physical store growth are coming from portfolio companies opening retail outlets for companies that they have acquired, and from former wholesale brands opening own-brand retail stores. Apple currently operates approximately 400 stores in the U.S., while Microsoft’s relatively diminutive 60-store U.S. scale represents a combination of permanent locations and pop-up stores. It hasn’t been lost on CNET and other consumer electronics media outlets that Microsoft’s stores not only resemble Apple stores aesthetically, but are also located in close proximity in many cases (a recent Retail Wire discussion also explored the motivations behind Apple seeking a trademark for its store designs).

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When Gap purchased women’s active sports brand Athleta in 2008, the online and catalog-based brand was tucked under Gap’s internet division. Three years later, Gap kicked off a measured store opening spree for Athleta that put popular niche yoga player, Lululemon, on notice. Although Lululemon’s current store count of roughly 135 stores in the U.S. dwarfs Athleta’s 30 locations, over a third of Athleta’s stores are within one mile of a Lululemon store, with some situated as close as a 12-minute walk away in major markets. Although Gap has claimed that its cozy proximities are a coincidence, given both chains’ relatively modest U.S. store counts, Lululemon could be seen as an annoyed diner seated elbow-to-elbow with fellow patrons despite being surrounded by a room full of empty tables.

As the race for space continues, the biggest challenge for encroaching retailers will be to carve out additive businesses rather than simply diluting the market. In the meantime, retailers with established footprints may need to evaluate the productivity of individual stores as the local landscape evolves.

Retail's "Non-Zero" Gameplan

Lately, I’ve been glued to the “Content Connections” series that is running on copyblogger.com. Not only does it offer spot-on insight into content marketing best practices, but its implications and applications invariably extend beyond content strategy.

Such was the case with a recent article by Sonia Simone called “How to Win a Zero-Sum Game: What to Do if Competitors Won’t Link to You.” Simone borrows the term “nonzero” from Robert Wright who wrote an excellent book on how biological and sociological diversity is driven by mutually-beneficial cooperation. In the article, she takes on the natural tension between cooperation and competition, particularly as digital media make large-scale content sharing possible, but not always comfortable, for zero-sum businesses. For example, in automobile sales, insurance, or real estate there can only be one winner; therefore, drawing attention to competitors by linking to their content or partnering with them in any way is a high-stakes risk.

By contrast, plenty of businesses operate in nonzero environments, including retailers. Only a very small, fixated group of consumers would ever shop exclusively at The Gap or dine only at Applebee’s, for example. The explosion of digital and physical touch points have heightened the dynamic, giving retailers more avenues for earning customer attention while making it impossible to own it.

Until very recently, retailers seemed to only be dabbling in cooperative initiatives despite the nonzero realities of their businesses and their desire to diversify. In this column, I’ve written extensively about how drastically that has changed as retailers make their owned brands available to competitors, partner up on shop-in-shop concepts, launch limited-run co-branding programs, and take proprietary service offerings into competitors’ store environments. The remarkable acceleration in the number and diversity of these deals attests to the fact that retailers are not only putting aside their rivalries, but are actively harnessing the power of partnership and cross-promotion.

Brand marketing is inherently a nonzero environment as well, and is becoming even more so as retailers increasingly value agility over continuity. If the brand environment seems dynamic and fast-paced now, it only promises to become more so in the future, as broad, long-term retail brand exclusives become the exception rather than the rule.

Today, brand marketers have an unprecedented opportunity to synch up with retail by reassessing competitive boundaries and further diversifying its collaborative approaches. Are private, national and licensed brands your competitors or potential team mates in your nonzero game?

Retail Wire picked up this article. Check out the discussion.

This article originally ran on the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA) website.