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Some big retailers ignore their apps but at what cost?

Big-name retailers such as Old Navy, Victoria?s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch have not updated their mobile applications in at least six months ? a strategic decision, tactical oversight or no big deal? 

While other merchants update their apps on a regular basis ? as often as once a week for some ? a handful of bricks-and-mortar retailers are dragging their feet. The laggards appear to be missing some key best-in-class features and have poor reviews, suggesting that they may not be performing and these retailers have decided to focus their efforts elsewhere or they could be preparing to relaunch. 

?Having looked at these retailers? apps, we see a lot of room for improvement,? said Lorraine Howard, chief customer officer at NN4M. ?Usually, the reason that retailers with less successful apps have not put much effort into them is that they were not well developed from the beginning. 

?In our experience, it isn?t a case of apps not working for bricks-and-mortar retailers, but rather a poorly conceived app that doesn?t offer users enough benefits to convince them to hit the download button,? she said. 

Old news
The iPhone app for Old Navy has not been updated since October 2014 while sister brand Gap last tweaked its app in November of last year. 

It could be that executives at Gap Inc. are focused on other challenges, as the company is facing soft sales while it struggles to regain the cachet it once had. 

However, Gap is overlooking an important tool to engage consumers and drive loyalty via mobile. This is evident from the poor customer reviews the apps for both brands receive. 

?I don?t think it?s an issue of the effort into the apps not paying off, since other players are seeing that payoff,? said Scott Michaels, executive vice president at Atimi Software. ?So what it means is the effort put in to date is either too little ? and therefore uninteresting to the consumers ? or the apps are updating with content that is current, and they don?t feel that further investment is required at this time.?

Abercrombie & Fitch is also struggling to connect with younger shoppers who are not as interested in the highly sexualized positioning that the brand used to boast. The last time the app was refreshed was November. 

Customers are clearly looking for some more mobile excitement from A&F, with reviewers complaining that the app is nothing more than a recreation of the brand?s Web site for the iPhone. 

Driving loyalty
The Victoria?s Secret app has not been updated since February of this year. However, the brand does continue to refresh its loyalty-focused Pink Nation app, pointing to how savvy retailers are leveraging how a mobile phone is always nearby to engage their most loyal customers with games, offers and other content. As a result, the Pink Nation app gets great reviews from customers, who frequently call out the app?s interactive features as among their favorites. 

Not actively managing and updating an app is one of the top mistakes retailers make on their apps. The recommended cadence for app updates is once a quarter.

In contrast, the apps from Amazon, Walmart, Target and Kohl?s have all been updated in the past month. These retailers are embracing leading mobile strategies, including using indoor location technology such as beacons, using push messaging to drive users back to the app and offering bar code scanning. 

Some retailers, such as Sephora, are also incorporating social networking into their apps in a big way to inspire their customers. 

Retailers also often make the mistake of not actively marketing their apps. 

Hybrid apps
Another mistake retailers often make is creating a hybrid or Web app to save time or money, per Ms. Howard. A hybrid or Web app as opposed to a native app ? which is a much bigger investment ? can provide a poor user experience that translates to low user uptake and negative reviews. 

?Most often these poorly functioning apps are ?hybrid? - developed using web technologies rather than native code,? Ms. Howard said. ?Hybrid apps are cheaper to make than native apps and work across different operating systems but come at the expense of reduced performance and negative user experience. 

?By their very nature, transactional retail apps are complicated things,? she said. ?When not developed natively, the experience often becomes jumpy, slow and disjointed.

?Retail apps require high performance and smooth user experiences, which means that a hybrid approach may lead to poor user uptake and negative reviews, adversely affecting a retailer?s brand.? 

The most effective retail apps are harnessing mobile, with its always on and always connected capabilities, to blur the boundaries between digital and bricks-and-mortar shopping. The savviest retailers are using these capabilities to create flexible multichannel strategies that are tailored to their target customers? demands and preferences. 

As the holiday shopping season approaches, apps need to perform well, offer personalized experiences, enhance the in-store shopping experience and deliver a streamlined online checkout experience. 

?In order to generate the most users and revenue, retail apps need to offer features and functionality that make users want to download and use them regularly,? Ms. Howard said. ?Native mobile apps will always have the edge over their hybrid cousins.?

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