Mobile plays a role in most retail purchases these days, making it imperative that retailers live up to consumers' rising expectations of their favorite brands.

Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru estimates that roughly half of brick-and-mortar retail mobile sales are made in apps. Even if consumers don't actually purchase on mobile, there's still a high likelihood mobile was a part of their customer journey: A study by Facebook IQ found that 45% of shopping trips include some mobile shopping.

Investment in digital retail strategies is more pertinent and complex than ever, so where should brands focus their efforts?

Retail brands can look to the successes of their peers to help answer that question. We'll take a look at what makes Kohl's, eBay, Walgreens, and Amazon (four of the top retail mobile apps) successful.

I'll share the three strategies all four apps have in common, and examine the specific tactics these retailers use to create mobile customer experiences consumers actually enjoy.

Three Strategies for Mobile Shopping App Success

What sets these top apps apart from the competition? We identified three essential strategies all of the apps use:

  1. Reduce friction in the path to purchase.
  2. Make customers' lives more convenient.
  3. Create seamless omnichannel experiences.

Let's explore some tactics the apps use to execute on those three overarching strategies.

1. Reduce friction in the path to purchase

Ultimately, retailers' goal is to increase sales. If you reduce friction on the path to purchase via mobile apps—by allowing customers to get what they want, when they want it, with minimal interference—you can influence sales.

Mobile is a tool for reducing friction in channels. We identified two tactics retailers can use to ensure their mobile app is as frictionless as possible.

A. Functional in-app search

Fully 83% of US consumers surveyed said a search box is "important" or "extremely important" to them while shopping, and 76% said they "always" or "often" use the search box, a study by RichRelevance found. But 35% of shoppers said they're dissatisfied with search results on mobile, and, alarmingly, 38% of shoppers complained they receive worse search results when shopping on their mobile device than they do on their laptop or desktop.

Moral of the story: retailers shouldn't underestimate the power of search.

Amazon's app has made in-app search a main priority. Its search results are personalized to the customers, and search results are prioritized by relevance based on the customer's past behavior. Those mobile search results are so optimized that, when searching for products ,44% of consumers turned first to Amazon in 2015.

B. Use one-time password

Reducing friction to the path to purchase doesn't need to be a huge overhaul. Small, simple features make a big difference in the ease of use in mobile apps.

eBay eliminated friction from its app's login process by making it less of a hassle with a one-time password: Customers are automatically logged in every time they open the app with Touch ID authentication. No more having to remember a password and user name every time.

2. Make customers' lives more convenient

People embrace technology that saves them time or makes tasks easy to cross off their list. Retailers who design their mobile apps to make customers' lives more convenient are more likely to see an increase in app adoption and engagement.

Two tactics can clearly help brands carry out this strategy in their apps.

A. Make shopping trips quick and easy

Walgreens has put its customers' convenience at the heart of its app's design. Instead of focusing on trying to get customers to spend more time in Walgreens stores, the company focuses on getting customers in and out as quickly as possible.

Adam Crouch, director of Digital Commerce Product Management at Walgreens, explained that the goal is to enable customers to shop quickly and efficiently with the assistance of the app—via mobile payment, digital coupons, and in-app shopping lists.

B. Integrate your rewards program

Kohl's recently launched Kohl's Pay, which seamlessly integrated its Yes2You rewards program. Customers can earn rewards for making purchases without having to swipe or scan a separate rewards card—making it much more convenient for the tech-savvy shopper.

Mobile technology has made way for creative loyalty programs too—something Walgreens has embraced. Its customers are able to sync their Fitbit or third-party fitness tracker apps to their Walgreens reward account to earn rewards for making healthy choices. People are rewarded in Walgreens points for being healthy, which makes perfect sense for the brand.

3. Create a seamless omnichannel customer experiences

Customer experience (CX) is a hot-topic in the retail world. That's because of the financial implications and impact it has on brand reputation. Forrester Research found that customers are willing to pay nearly five times as much for a great CX versus a poor experience. And consumers are not all talk: Customer experience innovators outpace companies with poor experience by over 500%.

We identified two main tactics that successful retail apps employ to create a seamless customer experience across all channels.

A. Create an omnichannel shopping bag

If you've ever spent time shopping on your desktop and decided you'll come back later to check out, only to realize your shopping cart is empty in the app when you come back, you'll relate to the frustration many shoppers feel. With advanced technological capabilities available, why wasn't it able to recognize you?

Kohl's recognizes how frustrating that experience is and how many sales it'd likely loseout on because of it, which is why it created the digital "shopping bag." It's omnichannel, meaning it is the same no matter which channel customers are shopping on.

Both Kohl's and its customers benefit from this approach: Kohl's mitigates the risk customers will abandon their bag, and customers have a frustration-free omnichannel customer experience.

B. Consolidate the digital experience

Having different user interfaces (UI) on each digital channel is confusing for customers. Retail brands can benefit from consolidating their digital experience to minimize time wasted trying to figure out how to navigate a different UI.

eBay took such an approach when it created a UI that looks and feels the same in-app, on mobile, and online. That omnichannel UI lets customers achieve their goals easily on eBay without the hassle of trying to become acclimated with each channel's different structure and layout.

* * *

Retailers looking to beef up their mobile strategies can learn from Kohl's, eBay, Walgreens, and Amazon. These retailers have executed successful mobile strategies that have sent them to the top of the charts, contributed to their accelerated monthly active user (MAU) growth, and decreased churn.

If we've learned anything, it's that there are three goals retailers' can strive for to set their apps apart from the competition: reduce the path to purchase, make the lives of customers more convenient, and create a seamless omnichannel customer experience.

There are numerous tactics retail brands can implement to achieve those goals. The tactics you choose depend on the wants and needs of your customers, but now is the time to invest in improving your retail mobile app.

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Three Lessons From Top Mobile Shopping Apps: How Retailers Can Improve Customer Experience

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Emily Carrion is head of marketing at Apptentive mobile customer engagement software, which empowers brands to build meaningful relationships with their customers.

LinkedIn: Emily Carrion

Twitter: @Emily_Carrion