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Push notifications, mobile appointment booking dominate back-to-school commerce efforts

As retailers double down on driving back-to-school sales, they are increasingly focused on leveraging mobile to influence in-store purchases, such as with push notifications containing nearby deals and by enabling users to book styling appointments on their smartphones.

Research from companies including Retale, Deloitte and RetailMeNot has shown that consumers still plan to conduct much of their back-to-school shopping in stores this year – with mobile lending a helping hand when it comes to doing price comparisons or searching for last-minute coupons. Location-based targeting efforts will continue to nab top status this year in terms of effectiveness, as consumers shopping in a mall or store may be swayed to visit another location or look more closely at a product upon receiving a call-to-action on mobile, such as a push notification.

“In our research, we’ve found that the majority of parents plan to shop in-store during this year’s back-to-school shopping season, so it is critical for marketers to reach those shoppers via their mobile devices,” said Michelle Skupin, senior director of global corporate communications at RetailMeNot, Inc. “Retailers that leverage location-based mobile technology can efficiently reach consumers while they are shopping in malls and in stores.

“This technology includes tactics such as marketing messages delivered via push notifications triggered by geo-fences and/or beacons,” she said. “Some retailers have these capabilities with their own technology. If they don’t, they should leverage the capabilities of marketing partners who have high consumer engagement on mobile, a high opt-in rate for location services and the technology to reach their mobile base with the right content, at the right place and at the right time.

“Additionally, retailers and brands can use social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, which have high mobile user engagement, to reach shoppers who are on their devices and create more brand awareness. It’s also a great place for people to share their new purchases furthering the conversation after checkout.”

Banking on mobile assistance
Although in-store shopping still reigns supreme for many people completing back-to-school-related tasks, mobile will play a critical role in driving purchases among indecisive consumers and deal-savvy individuals.

According to a recent survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers, mobile should be at the forefront of retailers’ minds as the back-to-school season draws closer, as 86 percent of shoppers plan to leverage their smartphones while browsing in-store (see story).

Deloitte’s 2016 Back-to-School Survey revealed that 61 percent of consumers will research online before buying products from a physical store, while 25 percent of individuals plan to leverage social media channels during their shopping experiences.

Their primary reason for using social media is to look for available promotions and coupons.

Retailers that do not have significant social media followings may find more validity in leveraging push notifications within third-party apps to alert nearby shoppers of available deals.

For example, if an individual is shopping in a mall and receives a push notification from the RetailMeNot app regarding a major sale for back-to-school apparel at Macy’s, he or she may become inspired to stop by the store before leaving the mall.

“Our consumers have shown us that mobile has become a primary influencer of all channels – mobile, desktop and in-store,” Ms. Skupin said. “The mobile device is a consumer’s personal shopping assistant when shopping in-store.

“Having a mobile presence is incredibly critical for retailers to reach in-store shoppers,” she said. “More than ever, people are searching for information and deals in the moment because mobile has enabled that capability.

“It is important to have a presence to meet the needs of those shoppers who plan and those who are in the moment.”

Incentives for in-store shoppers
Per Ms. Skupin, retailers looking to ramp up their back-to-school commerce strategies should emulate Starbucks’ and Sephora’s mobile tactics.

Although Starbucks is not a retailer commonly associated with back-to-school shopping, its sales initiatives serve as a best-in-class example. The Mobile Order and Pay platform effectively solves a major pain point for customers – waiting in long lines.

If retailers with NFC-enabled payment terminals in their bricks-and-mortar locations alert consumers to the fact that checkout can be completed via their smartphones in a matter of seconds, it could remove some of the hassle that comes with shopping during a peak season.

Meanwhile, Sephora does an exemplary job of connecting its mobile fans with the in-store experience, per Ms. Skupin. Consumers can use the beauty giant’s mobile app to book an in-person appointment for makeup styling tips, showcasing another opportunity that retailers can take advantage of to drive sales.

Apparel marketers may find value in enabling their mobile app users and site visitors to book a personal styling appointment, something that could be beneficial in attracting younger consumers focused on individuality when it comes to fashion choices.

“According to our data, mobile has a clear and sizable impact on back-to-school bricks-and-mortar buying,” said Christine Cline, vice president of marketing at Retale. “First, 85 percent of the parents we polled said that they use a smartphone to help them shop for school-related items – up nearly 10 points from 2015.

“But they’re not simply buying from these devices,” she said. “Our study found that most are, instead, using mobile to support the traditional bricks-and-mortar shopping experience. They’re leaning on smartphones to compare prices in-store, search for coupons to be used at store locations, create shopping lists, check store hours, find nearby store locations, and more.

“The lowest ranked mobile shopping activity was, in fact, buying directly from a smartphone or tablet. Ultimately, what this tell us is that mobile is now central to the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience and in-store customer journey. This channel continues to define the way most people approach their purchases, and people continue to discover the advantages of leveraging mobile in their shopping.”