LISTEN: Sandbox Commerce Founder Talks E-Commerce Mobile Apps with Commerce Tea

Sterling Smith, Sandbox Commerce founder and CEO, spoke with the hosts of Commerce Tea about how a native mobile app can help Shopify sellers create a deeper relationship with existing customers.

Commerce Tea hosts Kelly Vaughn and Rhian Beutler are Shopify Partners: one Plus partner, and one app developer join forces and share the tea every week on what they know best: how to succeed selling online.

LISTEN NOW: Mobile Apps for Shopify Stores

Two Strategies to Reach Shoppers Online

Considering the options that exist for retailers, I think it’s best to approach the digital landscape as if you’re selecting the sharpest ax and most reliable power tool.

This is a big deal for retailers as Shopify, the ecommerce platform that enabled $135 billion in sales in 2019, just launched a new consumer app, Shop. Shop is a digital marketplace for customers to discover local businesses powered by Shopify through recommendations and location filters. 

Digital Marketplace vs. Native Mobile App

The benefits of a marketplace like Shop and the Shopify platform include alignment with a large, well-known brand with access to data points it has gathered from retailers like you, who give data in exchange for exposure. The challenge lies in your brand’s inability to fully control the user experience, and getting swamped in competition with the number of  retailers listed in the marketplace. 

The value of having a branded, native e-commerce app, is being able to  design the experience you want to deliver — the kind that builds loyalty and increases the lifetime value of your customers. Owning your mobile storefront means you get to control what products you want to sell, how you want to display them, the frequency of outreach to customers and what the messages say. And of course, your data is owned by you, accessible at any moment. 

A Well-Balanced E-commerce Strategy

My recommendation is that you think about a well-balanced e-commerce strategy. One the one hand, how can you maximize the features that come with a digital marketplace? What products can you offer there that will make the most of discovery and recommendation engines?

On the other hand, how can a native mobile app help you deliver a digital-first customer experience that uniquely yours? You will want to ensure that your offers there are designed for your most loyal customers. Also, keep in mind that you’ll need to wrap an engagement strategy around each purchase that reflects who you are and keeps customers coming back for more. 

The digital landscape is varied, and no one single tool will get the job done for every goal you as a retailer will have to grow your business and thrive in the way we do business now. Personally, I’m excited to see how businesses will make use of insights from Shop to strengthen their presence on web, social media and apps. The digital toolbox is only getting stronger, and that’s the only way growing retail will continue to thrive. 

Start Planning Now: How to Reopen Your Retail Business

Opinions may vary about how and when, but I, like most Americans, am thinking about what life and business looks like when stay-at-home restrictions are removed. In Texas, where I live, the governor has a task force that is working on the logistics of opening schools, places of worship and, for the benefit of the economy, businesses. The President also weighed in with a three-phase approach called Opening America Up Again.

Safety is the main concern for all when considering how to get commerce energized and people out of their houses and purchasing goods. How your business returns to operations impacts not only your customers but also your employees and your reputation. Planning will be essential to a smooth roll-out.

What Remains: Online and Digital Ordering

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To offset the months of lower foot traffic, continue to maintain a robust, streamlined process for purchase on your website or through an app. Give buyers the option for delivery or scheduling curbside pickup at your physical location. Many of your customers will appreciate the opportunity to see a friendly face and to rebuild their routines.

What Changes: Notifications and Email Alerts

If your business requires you to get up close and personal, like stylist or cosmetologist. Typical waiting areas are not an ideal place for customers who are concerned about their health. You can help people get past the worry with clear communication about what the experience will look like.

Enhancement: Gift Cards, Mobile Apps and Credit Toward Services

Even if you don’t have a hard timeline in place yet for reopening, encouraging customers to order gift cards for themselves or as gifts to others not only brings cash flow into your business but it also builds anticipation for redeeming the credit. Along with re-investing in your companies website, invest time and money in building a mobile app for your brand that allows your to notify them via push notifications and incorporate augmented reality (AR).

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Bottom Line: Start Small, Be Cautious

As we navigate the reopening of public life together, I want to give you a reminder to lead with empathy. Uncertainty makes it hard to anticipate customers’ reception to in-person experiences, so be sure you’re exceeding expectations with your digital presence. Allow the brick and mortar game plan to follow the guidelines and messaging of the online experience, a reversal of the way things used to be.

Fold in the opportunities for clients to connect with you face-to-face, ensure their and your safety by following guidelines from elected officials and healthcare professionals, and nurture your relationships by treating every engagement with kindness and a view on the long-term outcomes. We’re in this together.

A Timely Pivot to E-Commerce

There is a graphic circling social media that demands we all come out on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic with a skill or side hustle, or else we’ve wasted the time given to us through quarantine and shelter-in-place orders.

I tend to take viral posts like this with a grain of salt; what productivity looks like to someone who is an entrepreneur versus someone with a job that is deemed essential or to someone who is childfree versus a person who is balancing homeschooling and full-time work expectations will be vastly different right now. However, in every bombastic and boastful post, there remains a grain of truth. Now is a good time to make purposeful changes about your company and expand into new and strategic offerings.

As a previous article mentioned, restaurants and retailers are shifting in their delivery to maintain contactless or organize as few touches as possible between packaging and the customer. Let’s zoom out a bit about pivoting to the online and digital space in a meaningful, long-term way.

I recently had a conversation with a successful retailer in New York who has three stores in the city. They’d done well offering boutique services through their brick and mortar storefronts up until the pandemic. When they looked at online sales, they lagged in-person numbers. Now with the shut down in the largest city in the nation, they realize that they’d missed a prime opportunity to have their online store primed for the pivot to online buying. Working from the back foot makes it harder to earn dollars that established boutiques that give equal, if not more, attention to e-commerce have already taken.

 

Revamp Site Content

If your site and app is already up, you’re one step in the right direction. Say you’ve put that decision off; now is the best time to create your e-commerce solution. Not only are people looking to support small business, you can also link with an independent site or app developer looking to continue building their portfolio.

If you have experience in building online and digital, you may be able take what you would spend with a developer and find a self-service product or platform to help you build.

For existing sites that haven’t been touched since launching, invest in updating your content, from product photos and descriptions to your brand story. It might be that the logo you chose years ago no longer fits with the business you run today. Work with a graphic designer to drop a new logo and hire a content specialist to give your company description the update it needs.

Apply SEO Best Practice

You are familiar with the concept of SEO, right? It (search engine optimization) is what brings your brand up to the top in Google, Bing and other search engines when people search for key words and phrases related to your products and services. If you can’t go viral, you definitely want to be on the first page of the top search results for the words and phrases that matter to you.

Data from Pinterest Survey

One of the more interesting ways that SEO is changing is directly related to the way we engage with search engines. Rarely do we go in search of “blue t-shirts” when shopping. Instead, we ask our browsers “what’s the t-shirt [insert Celebrity X] wore on Jimmy Kimmel?” The specificity of our searches means that alt-text and descriptive content has to be on point.

Notice also I said “we ask” our browsers, meaning we are using voice over typing to search. Voice search, as compared to text search, tends to have longer, more descriptive phrases. Voice search is also tied to heavy spending; by 2022, voice-based shopping will be at $40 billion.

While you may not learn how to DJ or crochet during this shift, it doesn’t mean you should be okay with idleness. Enhancing your online and digital platforms is a no-brainer that will help you maintain your brand’s presence and earn new customers while satisfying your current customers desire to buy online.


Follow me on Twitter or on the Sandbox Commerce blog, for more topical content!

There will never be a perfect time, don’t wait to engage with your customers!

During the pandemic, the latest way to connect with your customers…is to not contact them. Physically, that is. Many businesses are still providing top-notch service, even as we are physically distancing ourselves to lower the risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19.

Restaurants and bars, along with clothing and goods storefronts, are instituting new methods of getting their food and products to their customers through inventive and creative methods. Rather than allowing new rules to diminish the experience, owners and operators are thinking of ways to provide a positive buying experience and increase long-term loyalty. What does that mean for you and your company as you face the same challenges?

Bundle goods and services in new ways

Across the United States, most restaurants are being labeled as essential service companies but with the rules limiting the number of people allowed to gather in one building, dine-in service is out of the question. I’ve been impressed to see how thoughtful the dining teams have been about packaging whole meals, along with beverages, to still give their customers the appetizer-entrée-desert components in takeaway.

Here in Texas, where I’m based, the governor has relaxed the rules about alcohol delivery and take-way and many places are selling their signature drinks as an add-on. If you sell products, what combinations can you offer customers to help them imagine the experience they can have from a line of haircare or facial goods they may not have imagined? Curating their purchase not only gives them more exposure to your lineup, it helps you understand what combinations can sell in the future.

Invest in packaging

Unboxing videos are a popular way that customers have been sharing their purchases for some years. We use our eyes as part of our enjoyment and investing in new and unique packaging is a low-cost way to surprise your customers.

If you can make the packaging sustainable, that adds a valuable element to why they should be buying from you. Upgrade the bags, boxes and enclosures as well as small touch-points like tags, packaging materials like tissue paper and thank you notes.

Make use of social media to share customer stories

What good is a customer purchase if no one knows they bought it, right? Make a wave by asking your audience to share what they’re buying with their own followers along with their review. You can request this through email marketing or in-app messaging and incentivize it by offering future credit or discounts.

There is a risk that you may have an unhappy customer who isn’t pleased by the change in the buying and delivery process and they decide to share that. However, I’ve found that most people, especially your most loyal customers, are understanding of the ways that commerce is changing and want to support you staying in business.

Keep updated inventory to ensure expectations are met

Almost all of us have experienced that moment of intense disappointment when we’ve added a purchase to cart and are set to check out only to find out that the site had an error and what we want isn’t in stock. You don’t want to be the brand that is letting people down because your inventory wasn’t correct.

Make it a priority to ensure your numbers are correct and updated regularly as customers check out to avoid not being able to fulfill someone’s need for the best work-from-home outfit or self-care product.

Surprise and delight

The brands that go above and beyond in bringing an unexpected smile to their customers’ faces will be rewarded when the travel and gathering restrictions are lifted. The surprise and delight tip doesn’t have to equal a massive spend on your part.

What small ways can you provide an unexpected but welcome moment in the lives of others? The note included in their order thanking them for supporting an independent business, the email that shares a picture of your work from home set up, complete with dogs, cats and kids, or a video dropped on your social media channel that authentically talks about your gratitude. If you can afford, include a freebie that elevates their experience in their orders as well. Be the kindness you wish to see, and it multiplies.


What ways have you seen businesses uniquely providing delivery and carry-out wins from online or in-app purchases?

How can brands increase engagement in the age of social distancing

The unexpected impact of COVID-19 pandemic and the required social distancing for public safety is hitting brick and mortar stores right in the heart of their business: in-person sales and engagement. With fewer people coming through their doors, sales are declining, and many owners are having to make hard decisions. How do you determine trends and provide necessary touchpoints with buyers when they can’t leave their homes?

The current realities facing many companies is a sobering look at the realities of 21st century life. Unexpected and disruptive events are part of the business landscape and planning is crucial to make sure that interruptions have as little impact as possible. The ways stores usually do business – face-to-face – can’t stand alone as strategy for growth and retention of customers, and diversifying into a digital solution can be daunting.

With the advent of faster Internet connectivity, WiFi networks through most public places and the rollout of 5G, people are engaged with their mobile tools throughout the day. They are searching for content that meets their needs for entertainment and education on social media and downloading apps and tools to do the same.

Influencer Marketing

Celebrity isn’t limited to movie stars anymore. Influencers are taking over, and their impact can move numbers when it comes to products from clothing and shoes to books and movies.

Connecting with an influencer gives you access to their platform on social media and through email and it lends your brand cache as the must-have product of a customer’s favorite person.

I would recommend that you have your goals clearly outlined before engaging with an influencer to ensure you get the return on your investment. If you are sending your brand’s clothing to a person, where do you want them to wear it? Do they post to social media once and include in their weekly newsletter as well? The more you want them to promote your brand, the costlier the relationship can become, so be intentional about the elements of your contract.

And yes, you will need a contract. After all, influencers are a business themselves and they need to protect their brand as much as you want to protect yours.

Once they do post, share pictures and videos far and wide so your audience sees and engages with the content. It’s a smart move that exposes you to the influencer’s loyal followers and shows that you know what’s happening to your audience.

Social Selling

The social media platforms Instagram and Pinterest have emerged as powerhouses of e-commerce. We all know that scrolling, pinning and double-tapping takes up hours of people’s time across demographics. Why not make social selling of your latest line a priority when your customers aren’t able to make it into the stores?

To give some perspective: 37 percent of Americans use Instagram and 89 percent of Instagram’s users are from outside of the United States. 73 percent of teens say the platform is the best way for brands to reach them about new products or promotions and 130 million Instagram users tap on a shopping product to learn more every month. And that’s just Instagram.

When Pinterest surveyed their users, the results were just as supportive of why you need to be moving toward social selling: 72 percent said the social site inspires them to shop even when they aren’t actually looking for anything. You can’t buy results like this: 90 percent said Pinterest helps them decide what to buy and 66 percent buy something after seeing a brand’s Pins.

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It’s an easy win to set up your shoppable Instagram or Pinterest account; you already know the purchase power is there and with limited in-person engagement, social media is the new storefront.

Mobile Tools

Most businesses have a mobile version of their site where customers can also purchase; after all, it is 2020. The user experience for apps differs from online stores. An online store is standard but the reality is that only 12 percent of consumers find shopping on mobile sites convenient. Having an app allows for personalization that buying in-store or via website isn’t built to deliver.

Customers are looking for a shopping experience that speaks to their specific needs, be it based on their location, previous purchases, web history or other data, without it being obvious that the brand has this information at their fingertips. Apps natively capture this information and deliver content personalized to individuals, leading to increased sales.

The time it takes to build an app is fairly short, thanks to drag and drop technology. The best no code app builders allow you to make your app in a day. In your brand’s app, make sure you prioritize offering a full range of inventory, add captivating descriptions and photos, and categorize it all in a way that makes sense to your customer.

From there, you can consider what your marketing will look like through push notifications and other ways to engage with app users. Finally, you can get the big picture view by regularly studying your analytics that show who is using the app, their demographics and buying habits and a sales report.

The New Normal: Sell from Everywhere and Leverage Networks

As the manager of your brand, you likely didn’t anticipate that you would be facing this challenging period. Grow stronger from the current challenge and come out smarter by connecting with new audiences through influencers, leveraging social media purchasing and developing an app as the digital solutions your audience needs to stay connected with you. When customers see your brand throughout their day, it becomes more likely they will make purchases, their loyalty increases, and you gain a brand advocate.

Omni-Channel vs Multi-Channel Strategy

Let’s begin by defining each:

  • Omni-channel e-commerce (meaning, “all” channels) unifies sales and marketing to create a single commerce experience across your brand.
  • Multi-channel e-commerce (i.e., “many” channels), while less integrated, allows customers to purchase natively wherever they prefer to browse and shop

Developing a successful business strategy means understanding the differences between the two and picking the one that’s right for your business.

Multi-channel marketing and sales enable customers to not only interact with your products through whatever medium is most natural to them, but to purchase through that medium directly.

The best metaphor for a multi-channel marketing is a wheel with spokes.

At the center of the wheel is your product (i.e., a sale). On the outer rim of the wheel are your customers where each channel offers a separate and independent opportunity to purchase.

spokes

In Omni-Channel Retailing, Tommy Walker from Shopify offers what is easily the most expansive summary of the term:

“Omni-channel as a philosophy is about providing consistent, yet unique and contextual brand experiences across multiple customer-aware touch points, including brick and mortar, marketplaces, web, mobile and social.”

“It’s about allowing consumers to purchase wherever they are while communicating in a way that is in tune with why they use a given channel and showing awareness of their individual stage in the customer lifecycle.”

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When making the jump from single-channel to multi-channel marketing, there are a few things you need to keep in mind at all times.

Most importantly, you absolutely need to know which channels your target customers typically utilize. For example, it would make no sense for a company whose target demographic consists of baby boomers to become present on Snapchat; similarly, a company targeting teens and young adults likely wouldn’t fare well by focusing on direct mail marketing and radio advertisements to generate a buzz.

Similarly, you need to consider which channels your target customers expect your brand to be present on, as well. When you have identified your channels, you then need to optimize your message each device accordingly.

When it comes to omni-channel marketing, the tenets mentioned above still apply – but there’s more. In addition to knowing where your customers are, knowing what they expect from you, and optimizing your presence on each channel your brand is active on; you also need to focus on using each of these channels to enhance the customer experience, as well.

It’s not just about being present on multiple channels – it’s about the value your presence brings to the customer via each of these channels.

Key Features of Great Retail Apps

If you’re familiar with e-commerce, and/or have read our other blogs, you know that e-commerce is being re-shaped and overtaken by mobile commerce. For brands and retailers who haven’t come aboard and launched a mobile app, there’s no better time than the present to get started.


With that in mind, let’s take a look at some things to consider about your app, that will attract your loyal customers, and more importantly, keep your app on their mobile device.

 

 

Good User-Experience (UX)

This is a pretty obvious element, but it bears mentioning. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Better yet, think of apps you have on your own mobile devices. Are they difficult to use and navigate? Probably not. Screen space is valuable real estate, and nobody is going to keep an app on their device that isn’t simple to use.

 

Some Elements of a Good UX

  • Make things easy to find
  • Clearly identify and provide detailed descriptions of your items
  • Fast, secure, checkout
  • No hidden costs

Personalized Offers

 

Just because you’re using technology, and aren’t face-to-face with your customers, doesn’t mean you can’t add a personal touch to their interaction with your app. 

This is a prime example of why capturing rich customer data is important for understanding your customers interests and buying tendencies.

One example to take note of, is personalized push notifications. Amazon Prime does an excellent job with this. They will make personalized recommendations based on past purchases or related to items you may have left in your cart. 

 

Flash Sales and Discounts

 

F.O.M.O…An acronym that stand for ‘Fear of missing out’. It’s that gut-wrenching feeling that everyone else is taking part in something, or getting something, and you’re on the outside looking in.

Flash sales are a business model in which a company offers a single or limited product selection for a discounted price over a short period of time. Sales typically last anywhere between a few hours to 24-36 hours.

You may not even need/want what’s being sold, but the idea of scarcity, and losing out on great deals is too hard for many customers to pass up.

 

Discounts are obvious. Why would anyone NOT want to save money? This is likely THE reason your customer downloaded your app. Make sure they’re seeing the benefits of having your app on their device. Also consider offering certain items as ‘app-only’ purchases. 

 

Alternative Payment Options

Aside from secure payment options, digital customers demand a variety of payment options.

The reason is two-fold: Simplicity, and security.

Popular modern payment options include:

  • Paypal
  • Venmo
  • Amazon Pay
  • Google Pay
  • Apple Pay

Simple check-out with minimal steps, and protected personal information. That’s what your customers expect.

Even cryptocurrency options like Bitcoin are gradually becoming payment options with retailers.

 

This was not by any means an exhaustive list. Consider these a solid foundation to build upon if you want to launch and maintain a successful retail app.