Originally published in Internet Retailer

With mobile phones playing such a central role in our lives, it continues to surprise me that they aren’t the smart-weapon of choice when it comes to e-grocery. Granted, download speed and screen size are the standard excuses for not making better use of this digital touchpoint, but smartphones have so many other attributes online grocers could capitalize on. The deficits seem relatively minor by comparison. I’d bet that their very limited use in e-grocery today is more a limit of imagination than of technology.

The Unique Advantages of Mobile

Mobile devices differ from desktop and laptop computers in a critical way: Many users both keep their phones constantly turned on and nearby. This kind of quick access is invaluable when tapping into certain customer demographics and offering simple, fast and painless purchasing options.

One of the most effective applications for mobile in the e-grocery industry is with working professionals—commuters and others who don’t necessarily have the time or ability to make a purchase from a computer while otherwise engaged in work, travel or other obligations. A customer realizing she needs to replenish a regularly used grocery item, paper product, cleaning supply or toiletry is a common occurrence, but she won’t remember it later in the day. Mobile devices, alongside an app that recognizes frequent purchases and can suggest them right away, create a fast process which is far more conducive to acting when the need strikes.

Ease of use can’t be overemphasized in this context. The apps customers use have to be effective in overcoming the speed and screen size constraints of mobile devices. Grocery lists and reminders living in the app, as well as suggestions made by smart software, are critical tools in this regard. They can engage and target individual consumers, cutting out steps in the shopping cycle and further harnessing the unique nature of mobile’s ability to remain close to customers.

What Makes The Most Sense for Mobile Purchasing?

While many shoppers’ grocery lists change somewhat each week, they’re packed with staple items that remain the same, week after week. Recognizing this will go a long way toward pleasing mobile shoppers. Providing reminders and suggestions that go along with the lists customers enter into an app creates an atmosphere where needs, wants and possibilities intersect, creating a rich, responsive system and encouraging quick purchases. These tools are especially important given the limited screen space and lower speed of mobile devices, as they work around such limitations by drawing on past information and algorithmic predictions to provide an engaging experience.

Offering additional information about the food and other products customers want to purchase has become important, too. A deep product catalog that moves beyond basic descriptions and costs is powerful. By providing nutritional data, options related to coupons and discounts, lists of similar products product sourcing information, more in-depth descriptions of organic certifications and similar seals of approval, grocers can further appeal to their target audience. It’s vital that businesses understand where most of this information currently lives—such as on an e-commerce site—and take steps to port it over to the app as needed. Tying the two touchpoints together and ensuring the full slate of relevant information carries over from one to the other is crucial to a seamless mobile experience for shoppers.

Understanding and Marketing to the Ideal Consumer

The importance of a great mobile environment for grocery shoppers is similar to the need for optimized layouts customers experience when they visit a physical store. A high-end retailer like Whole Foods, for example, will emphasize different products and a distinct overall experience as compared to a mid-market retailer like Kroger or Albertsons.

The same concept needs to carry over to the mobile app. The preferences and attitudes of the customer base need to be a major consideration, and information, offers and other elements must be geared toward their desires. Just as market research is crucial to understanding the habits of shoppers in physical stores, it needs to be applied to mobile app development, deployment and improvement.

When tapping into customer preferences, an algorithm that suggests purchases to customers on the individual level is a powerful tool. With the in-store and online shopping information already available, grocers can craft an app that appeals to their customer base and provides relevant suggestions.

Apps for mobile grocery shopping have to be developed with the customer in mind, from beginning to end. When dealing with a unique channel like mobile, overcoming the platform’s constraints is vital, but it’s not the only consideration. An app that encourages shoppers to use it and make purchases through it will keep their preferences, desires and needs at the forefront of the experience, providing them with a friendly, functional and speedy interface to address their concerns.

While every grocery chain, and therefore every app, is different, these guiding principles are universal. Grocers that realize the inherent power in a well-designed mobile app stand to succeed handily among certain segments of their customer base—and the time for them to capitalize on this is now.

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