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Urban Outfitters tackles thorny in-app product search challenge

While many retailers are still struggling with in-app product search, Urban Outfitters is addressing the challenge head-on with new filters, sorters and search capabilities designed to make it easier to quickly find merchandise.

Retailers are having a hard time getting the necessary data out of their back-end systems and into apps in a way that meets shoppers’ product search and discovery needs. Urban Outfitters is trying to meet those needs with an app update this week that enable users to filter products by price, color, size, brand and style as well as to sort products by price, rating and name.

“Filtering and sorting are two features our customers have been asking for,” said Carolann Larkin, program manager at Urban Outfitters. “With a large online catalog, we need to make sure customers can easily and quickly find what they are looking for, specifically when challenged by limited space on a phone screen.

“This is also the reason we elevated the search function in our latest iOS release to ensure it is accessible from anywhere in the shopping experience,” she said.

“We have a lot of mobile content that we’re excited about for holiday including curated shops that provide great gifting inspiration and also help complement what is happening in our stores.  We know our customers are using their mobile devices before they head to a store as well as while they are shopping, so we are providing easier access to content like holiday store hours and will use push notifications to inform customers about events at their local stores.”


The filter and sort capabilities will also be made available in an upcoming Android release.

The 30-second rule
Speed is of utmost importance in mobile apps, as users can be on-the-go or fitting in a brief shopping experience in between other activities. For retailers with a wide selection of products, sorters and filters can help by enabling users to narrow down the options to find what they are looking for.

Additionally, apps are often downloaded by a retailer’s best customers, which is all the more reason why it is crucial to provide a strong experience, because turning away these customers with a poor performance can result in lost sales.

However, many bricks-and-mortar retailers are lagging behind customers’ needs when it comes to filter and sort.

“Most retailers are far behind where they should be in terms of filter/sort,” said Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree Apps.

“The biggest reason is that as they move to a mobile-first architecture, the back-end mobile-optimized APIs need to be developed, to get the data from the retailers’ databases out to the apps,” he said. “This is a time-consuming process, but finally tools are hitting the market place to help developers do this much more quickly.”

An app user should be able to find and purchase an item in 30 seconds, per Mr. Dengel. Making this happen requires focus on the user flow, front-end app development and the supporting back-end systems, something that not a lot of retailers have been able to achieve yet.

To help retailers get there, WillowTree recently beta launched Monkeypod, a cloud-based API design and virtualization tool to help connect legacy systems to mobile and other devices.

Unique mobile experiences
Another reason retailers are struggling with search, filter and sort offerings in their mobile apps is that many are still trying to recreate the desktop experience on mobile. Instead, retailers need to recognize that the mobile experience is different and requires its own design and guidelines.

“Filter, sort and search are significant components when it comes to discovering product, but on mobile, retailers are falling short,” said Jeremy Jacobs, associate director of strategy at Resource/Ammirati “Customers have a much lower threshold for acceptable experiences on mobile compared to desktop.

“We know this because on average, brands see very low engagement times on mobile retail experiences,” he said. “Overall, mobile engagement experiences can be quite high for certain types of apps, but most retailer mobile experiences haven’t caught up to enable customers to search, discover or explore products.

“Using desktop ‘rules’ for filter, sort and search on mobile is a mistake. Retailers need to see mobile as a completely different customer experience and the strategy, design and execution should reflect this.”

Mixing it up
To get product search right on mobile, Mr. Jacobs recommends that retailers first ensure that the appropriate attributes are assigned to every product. Unfortunately, this is a very intensive effort that few retailers have done well, he said.

Product discovery is also a challenge for retailers on mobile that requires a different type of experience. Currently, many retailers’ product discovery experiences fall short by simply enabling users to scroll through product detail pages.

However, a few retailers have tried to enhance mobile product discovery, per Mr. Jacobs.

For example, American Eagle Outfitters offers its Style Mixer, which app users can use to create different top and bottom combinations. Users can also shake the app to spin through different tops and bottoms and see unique combinations.

H&M has borrowed a page from Tinder, which enables users to easily swipe through information that is presented in a card-like fashion.

Competitive differentiators
One of the steps retailers need to take to get to a place where they can create new product search and discovery experiences on mobile is to align their organization around an omnichannel perspective, as mobile effectiveness can drive both on-device conversion and in-store visits and sales.

Retailers also need to think in terms of how they are presenting results once filters are in place.

“The filters are important and are now a bare necessity in any retail app, especially for the fast shopper user who wants to get into the app and make a quick purchase or quick search and get out,” said Dipesh Mukerji, senior director of product strategy and marketing at Kony.

“The challenge comes in how you present the information once a filter is used,” he said. “If you simply apply a filter and get a result set that is a basic list then the user experience of the app is failing.

“Retailers must give result sets of these filters in a visual an intuitive manner. Retailers can lose users by not providing a result set in a visual and intuitive manner.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is senior editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York