Interview: Zalando's head of mobile product Nuzhat Naweed

At the beginning of 2016 European online fashion house Zalando rolled out a new mobile app aimed at rewarding its most loyal customers with access to unique additional content and a frictionless commerce experience.

The Zalando mobile app which officially launched back in 2012 has achieved more than 21.5 million downloads to date, and the retailer says its serves 19 million active customers across all of its platforms – 60% of whom access the company's pages via mobile devices. Zalando's head of mobile product & engineering Nuzhat Naweed is proud of the new-look app, which was built by her in-house team, and she has plans to keep advancing the platform as and when new technologies become available.

Changes made to he app at the turn of the year included variations to the search and navigation, but they also saw a greater focus put on rich fashion-related content and imagery.

"We showcased our products in a completely different light, and from a content marketing perspective we started providing app-exclusive content," Naweed, explained to Essential Retail.

"It's content that you do not get across any of our other digital channels, and that is quite a deliberate choice because one of our KPIs is about getting people to come back more frequently to our app. For us it's a challenge – as it is for every other retailer – to really provide reasons for people to come back every day. Content for us is one of those reasons."

Fresh content is updated daily and weekly – a recently introduced initiative from the retailer – and the mobile department works very closely with Zalando's brand team to help build the most relevant and up-to-date stories to showcase via the app.

"The daily was launched recently and the early numbers show some positive effect; people are coming back every day for fresh content," Naweed noted.

Mobile shoppers at Zalando are viewed as the most loyal of all the company's customers, apparently connecting several times more than across other channels. And it is for that reason Naweed thinks it was a "no-brainer" to give these particular customers "special treatment" with access to unique features and content.

One specific example of this in action – and an initiative that also highlights Zalando's data science capabilities – is the filtering section available for app users in select markets.

Certain shoppers in Zalando's home German market will only see products that match their shoe size when they search for footwear – based on previously entered information. This is only available in the organisation's mobile app, and clearly has the potential to be rolled out to the wider customer base once the company is completely happy with the function.

Other technological advancements Naweed and her team are keeping a close eye on include voice-activated search, mobile-based live chat and shoppable videos. Companies such as Ted Baker have recently used the latter in major marketing campaigns, and there is real potential for the wider fashion industry to embrace this tech as web video continues to grow in popularity. Live chat, meanwhile, appears to remain a desktop-centric online retail tool for now, and "there is a lot to do" in this area to make it right for mobile, according to Naweed.

On shoppable video, she said: "I've done a lot of research and there's nothing really [app] native available on the marketplace – the technology is all for desktop and mobile web.

"I think it makes perfect sense in terms of an engaging way to shop. What I'd like to see is that we do get native technology so we are able to plug and play these solutions in our retail app going forward."

She added: "Voice falls into the frictionless shopping experience, so our aim is to make sure we use all of the technology available to us to provide that frictionless experience.

"Whether that's voice-activated search, finding a gingham shirt or asking the help section 'where is my order?'. Again it's something we haven't discounted. There are parts of the organisation looking at effective ways to search; voice is one, image recognition is another – all of these things are in-flight at Zalando."

Zalando does not typically use third-party software providers when it comes to mobile development, but its markets team do analyse each individual territory to ensure the local aspects of the app are on trend in terms of product and functionality. This is particularly relevant around the payments offering, with Naweed saying the UK version was quick to add Apple Pay as a transaction option due to the nation's seemingly advanced used of this type of tech. Android Pay and – next year whe it launches in the UK – Samsung Pay will be closely monitored for their traction among consumers, too.

Recent financial results would suggest it is difficult to argue with the Zalando approach, with the first nine months of 2016 seeing the company achieve revenue of circa €2.5 billion – up by around 22% year on year. The preliminary results also showed that adjusted EBIT for the period is expected to come in at between €109 million and €126 million.

In successful business there is always talk of cross-departmental collaboration, and at Zalando it appears this way of working is central to operations. But what team effort does it take to bring the mobile app together?

Naweed said: "It's really a pan-Zalando effort – brand marketing, our market categories [...] and we have a fashion direction team and a categories team, so we have colleagues across the business to build this mobile experience.

"The other thing we've done is extend our mobile team to have a commercial team as well. All of our technology teams have a commercial counterpart – we have brought the commercial part of our app business closer. Physically we sit closer together and on a weekly basis we get together to talk about priorities."

She added: "We know what's happening from a commercial push perspective, in terms of how we're driving growth, and the commercial team know what we're doing in terms of features and functionality. We partner to grow the app as if it is its own small business."

For the wider fashion world, there seems to be growing momentum and importance behind content creation and speed of service, as ways of boosting customer engagement and retention.

"We spoke about emotionally connecting to the customer and I think retailers – us included – have to do better at that and competing for that real estate on the phone," Naweed argued.

"We talk at Zalando about nudging the customer in the right direction. For me looking after mobile it doesn't matter that a customer doesn't buy every time they come to Zalando but when they think of fashion they should open our app. [It's about] these small nudges, then when the customer is ready to buy then hopefully Zalando is top of mind."