Reeling shoppers back into stores with mobile apps – by AppsFlyer’s Sue Azari

AppsFlyer's industry lead of e-commerce, Sue Azari, writes how mobile apps can help retailers reel shoppers back into stores


Sue Azari, Industry Lead - eCommerce, AppsFlyer                    

As was echoed the world over, the malls and retail stores in the UAE fell uncharacteristically silent during the pandemic, with consumers moving online to purchase everything from groceries to fashion. In fact, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, shoppers spent 64% more online on non-essential products than they did before Covid-19. Dire warnings were issued, predicting the slow demise of in-person shopping. 

Two years on, this has proven far from true as the UAE has found shoppers are returning and the in-store retail industry is picking up once more, with consumer spending in retail stores rising by 14% in Q1 of 2022 compared with the same period in 2019. But, like almost every sector, major retailers and malls cannot stand still if they are to continue to thrive. It’s vital that brands recognise the changes in purchasing behaviours and adapt by offering the experiences that tech-savvy consumers expect, in order to encourage people to keep coming back to physical stores. 

Mobile continues to boom

The pandemic accelerated the already growing popularity of mobile apps. Benchmarking data from AppsFlyer shows that overall shopping app installs in the Middle East grew 125% during the first months of the pandemic between February and April 2020. Even as restrictions ease and we enter the post-pandemic world, mobile usage continues to rise. For example, in the first half of 2022, shopping app installs in the UAE rose 6% overall, with installs on Android, the dominant platform, seeing a 14% increase. 

It’s not surprising that large eCommerce names such as Namshi, Noon.com and Amazon have blazed the mobile app trail. But they’re being swiftly followed by more traditional brands who realise the importance of mobile when it comes to leveraging another channel to improve the customer experience, reach out to new customers and increase loyalty. 

What’s key to realise however is that mobile and physical retail should no longer operate in isolation. Many shoppers make use of an app while in-store. And brands are harnessing the opportunity, using mobile to improve the in-store shopping experience for customers — with both retailers and consumers reaping the benefit. 

Better-informed purchases in-store

One of the benefits of shopping in person is, of course, the ability to see, touch and try before you buy. But for some purchases, it’s not possible to try something physically before you buy it, even if you are in the shop. 

Some retailers have risen to the challenge. For example, L’Oréal’s Style My Hair augmented reality (AR) app lets you check what hair dye would suit you virtually while you’re in the store, by superimposing the colour onto a photograph on your phone. And it works for make-up, too — giving shoppers the best chance of choosing a product that works perfectly for them.  

Furniture giant IKEA, too, has created a clever app that both gives shoppers a better experience and makes it less likely that people will return items. The app allows customers to see exactly what an item of furniture would look like in their own home — making it more likely they’ll make the right choice, which is a win-win for the brand and consumer.  

It’s certainly not all about trying before you buy, with mobile people can easily access useful information before they make a purchase, and can quickly check ratings and reviews while shopping in-store. Brands can also then highlight other products the customer may like, which they can pick up right there in the shop. 

Easier navigation in store

When visiting a store with a particular item in mind, it’s extremely frustrating to then find it’s out of stock. That’s why many companies such as Zara and H&M now let customers check stock availability in specific stores through their apps. This has the double positive impact of making life better for customers and saving employees in the store from the time and hassle of answering questions about availability.  

In large stores, it can be difficult to find the items you want, either because of the size of the store or because you’re unfamiliar with the layout. Looking further afield, a popular department store chain, Marks & Spencer is trialling an AR app named List & Go in the UK to target this very problem. Shoppers can upload a list of the products they’re looking for and, once in the store, the app will guide them to each one. We can expect the brand, and other retailers, to introduce similar features for UAE shoppers in due course. 

Increasing engagement 

Mobile apps are also an excellent tool for boosting customer loyalty, with retailers finding that those who regularly use their apps are not only loyal but spend more, too. So, brands are increasingly prioritising installs and engagement. There are lots of different ways to do this, including social media campaigns, influencer marketing and in-app advertising. QR codes in changing rooms or at tills are another great option when appealing to those who are already keen on your brand. 

A cross-channel experience

Traditional retailers cannot stick to one channel if they are to not just survive but thrive. Today’s busy and tech-savvy consumers want to interact with brands when and where it suits them. In-store, on their mobile or on their computer — or a mixture. And they expect the experience to be consistent, simple, and slick. Leading brands must find clever ways to use a blend of online and offline in new and dynamic ways to create optimal shopping experiences.