What can retailers learn from restaurants about in-store mobile?

Last month I attended the Connect Mobile conference in Chicago. It was, for me, an unusual mix of mostly restaurants and some more traditional retailers. All were there to explore the opportunity that mobile presents for their business, whether mobile marketing, mobile in stores, mobile for employees, or mobile for payments. There was a lot of great advice on how to build a mobile marketing contacts database, how to take advantage of beacons and other more interactive elements, even how to think wisely about privacy and what your customers might or might not think is okay.

But one particular area caught my interest, and that was consumer mobile in stores – how to leverage consumer mobile devices as part of the store experience. This is a question that non-restaurant retailers have struggled with, in part because they don’t really know how consumers shop in stores, and so they don't know how to position mobile as part of that shopping experience – right now about the only thing they know for sure is that consumers like to use their phones to compare prices, something most retailers aren't that happy about enabling.

With restaurants, it's a different story. They know exactly why their shoppers are there – to eat – and they know the process that occurs as part of the dining experience. In fact, that process is so predictable that Benihana built a whole business model on what is essentially the Toyota manufacturing model of restaurant dining. And admittedly, restaurants have something of an easier problem to solve. While ordering can be complex, encouraging conversion is not. About the only reason a person will leave a restaurant empty handed is either gross incompetence on the part of the restaurant, or because the line is simply too long. Definitely not the case for retail.

Armed with that knowledge about in-store differences, you'll find that a restaurant's mobile app (and, for the record, the mobile web experience – but for simplicity's sake, I'm just going to focus on apps) looks and operates very differently than a non-restaurant retailer's app. First off, commerce is not front and centre. While you may end up immediately in the midst of a bunch of product categories on a retailer’s app, restaurants more often start with a higher level menu that includes finding the location, nutrition information, and yes, sometimes ordering. Increasingly, restaurant apps also include some kind of mobile feature where you can store gift cards, payment information, or discounts and offers, as well as loyalty cards and points.

Where the restaurant does offer ordering, the focus is on convenience – remembering specific configurations of meals, saving whole orders to be re-used, providing approximate pick up times, providing some kind of order status.

Retail apps seem to be more focused on gaining a transaction over any kind of integration into order history. Even in the case of click and collect, it is email and SMS that are more reliable indicators of order status than an app.

One big theme from Connect Mobile was "try to solve specific customer problems". Mobile can easily become a hammer in search of a nail, but if you look at the process through the customer's eyes, then it can quickly become clear where mobile can help. The objective is not to build engagement, a vague term that means little. The objective is to solve problems, which in turn create loyalty and a willingness to engage.

Let's apply this to what restaurants have learned about mobile, and how it could help retailers. Yes it's true that there are plenty of retailers who are perfectly happy with the conversion rate of their mobile commerce. It's still a relatively small part of the business, but so was eCommerce once. But in some ways, that success creates the wrong focus – a focus on transactions rather than solving customer problems.

For restaurants, the focus is not on the transaction. It's on getting customers into stores and serving them well once they’re there. Sure, some of what restaurant apps do is designed to prevent a customer from leaving empty handed. Order ahead is a perfect example of that – why worry about the line when you've already got your order in? But most of the focus is on enabling the in-store experience. And it translates well to general retail. Here's X examples of how it applies.

Don't focus exclusively on commerce. Shop/order button, instead of driving people straight into categories. Store finder, ratings and reviews (i.e., the equivalent of the nutrition information), mobile wallet – these all have utility value that may not drive conversion within the app, but may drive the elusive engagement that retailers seek.

Relevance is key. Many restaurant apps immediately ask for your location. In part this is because of complicated matters relating to franchising and price considerations related to pricing and promotions ("at participating restaurants"). But showing the right prices and directing people to the right locations for those prices is still a significant form of personalisation. For general retail, that means showing inventory at specific store locations or creating "shop your store" inventory profiles.

Factor in convenience. Restaurant apps remember past orders and past specific meal configurations. This makes ordering fast and easy on a mobile device. Retailers should think about sharing order history via a mobile app – not just the transactions, but the market basket and details like order frequency. The kinds of things that can go into easily building a shopping list. For apparel, it's about the closet: here's what's already in your closet.

Status Central. If you really want engagement, especially with an app strategy, then it also would help to think about the app as "status central". A place where consumers can see updates to in-store pickup orders in progress, or get alerts if inventory is running low on something in their shopping list.

The key to engagement isn't a singular dimension – saving time, saving money. It's about value in the sense of utility and usefulness. The more a retailer can focus on solving consumer problems, the more consumers will be grateful – and dare I say, loyal – as a result.

This article originally appeared as 'For In-Store Mobile Experiences, Retailers Should Look to Restaurants' on the RSR Research website. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.