Skip to main content

Tech Bytes: Five Tips on Retail App Success from Detroit Labs


I recently had the chance to spend some time talking with Dan Ward, cofounder of app development firm Detroit Labs. Since 2011, Detroit Labs has developed apps in its downtown Detroit center, rapidly growing to 75 employees and serving a wide range of companies including Domino’s Pizza. Here are five tips for developing a successful retail app gleaned from my conversation with Ward:

1. Connect the brick-and-mortar and digital channels

“There is a powerful consumer interest in tying together the brick-and-mortar and digital experience,” said Ward. “It’s what retailers should do with their apps.”

As an example, Ward said the Lowe’s app lets customers preset the app to a local store so they can instantly find out if an item is in stock and if so, the exact aisle and rack where it can be found.

“Retailers are moving that way,” said Ward. “On the front end it’s low tech, but on the back end the technology process involved is huge.”

2. Provide a mobile compass

Ward recommended that retailers leverage technology like beacons to allow consumers to use their mobile apps as a digital compass for the physical world.

“With beacons you can find products and navigate stores,” said Ward. “Consumers want to make purchases with ease, and also want to touch and experience the product in the store. It’s nice to see the product and read reviews on the app, but it’s also important to be able to push the customer to their local brick-and-mortar store.”

3. Accept mobile payment

Ward said accepting mobile payment is also a critical feature that retail apps must provide. “The Apple Pay user experience in fantastic,” he commented. “Not having to dig through your wallet for a card and instead paying with a simple tap is great. I simply scan my cards with my phone and away I go.”

Ward anticipates an increasing number of retailers will start accepting mobile payment through their apps. This will include third-party mobile payment services like Apple Pay and Google Wallet, as well as retailer-led consortiums like Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) or even proprietary mobile payment services like the one Starbucks is launching.

4. Tailor the experience to customer needs

No two retailers are alike, and no two retail apps should be alike, either. Ward advises that retailers carefully consider the needs of their specific customer base when designing their mobile app experience.

“The Target app has weekly specials featured right up front,” said Ward. “But for a retailer like Zappos, which has customers looking for more of a browsing experience, the app creates a decision tree. The customer can search for footwear, and then break it down by factors such as they are a male seeking boots. The experience should be specific to what you are selling.”

5. Keep it simple

The whole point of a mobile app is that is supposed to offer a straightforward, fast way to obtain information and accomplish tasks. Ward emphasized the need for retailers to keep their apps simple.

“Leverage what the phone has to offer,” he concluded. “You shouldn’t have to waste time logging in. Loyalty programs should feature Passbook integration. The Lowe’s app opens up as you drive by the store. People want to use mobile, but retailers need to be ready to commit the investment and time to make their apps right.”

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds