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    Mobile Apps and Today's C-store

    It's no longer a question of should apps be a part of c-store marketing strategies, but when.

    By John Kocher, MultiAd

    With today's on-the-go consumers expecting immediate, accurate information, smartphone popularity is surging. As a result, smartphone applications (apps), particularly customized apps providing infinite content delivery, are revolutionizing c-store marketing and increasing brand recognition and customer loyalty. As Scott Hartman, president and CEO of Rutter's Farm Stores, based in York, Pa., has said, "We understand that our convenience store customers are always on the go and mobile solutions fit right into their lifestyles."

    In this fiercely competitive market, it's no longer a question of should apps be a part of c-store marketing strategies, but rather when. With the variety of smartphones available and device-specific apps the norm, however, some c-store executives question the cost-effectiveness of this marketing tool. Yet, c-stores can achieve a strong mobile presence with a basic understanding of this new technology. By further utilizing apps supported on all smartphones, c-stores can reap the benefits of app marketing today and in the future.

    According to research conducted by The Nielson Co. this May, 38 percent of all U.S. mobile consumers own Web-enabled or smartphones, and sales are predicted to surpass feature phones by the end of 2011. With unlimited content in the palm of their hand, smartphone users have high expectations. They take for granted that store locations, hours and services will be easily accessible, reliable and complete, especially when they are on the go.

    Savvy c-store executives are taking advantage of this consumer demand for instant information by adding mobile apps to their marketing strategy. Derek Gaskins, vice president of marketing for NACS, said, "Just like websites 10 or 15 years ago, where every business thought they had to have a website, mobile is that way now. Every business and brand must have a mobile strategy or a mobile presence. If they don't have it, they risk losing relevance to their consumers."

    By utilizing even basic smartphone apps, c-stores can increase brand recognition. For instance, featuring the c-store logo in the app design serves as a reminder every time the user opens their device. By providing up-to-date store hours, directions and product information, apps help consumers avoid frustrating store trips, thereby increasing trust. Additional functions available through customized apps, such as mCommerce, UPC Scans, coupons and promotions, lead to increased sales.

    Creating a successful mobile presence isn't rocket science, but a basic understanding of app types and smartphone environments, or platforms, is vital. There are two types of apps: native or installed, and mobile Web apps. Native apps, downloaded directly onto smartphones, are more efficient and consumer-friendly. Easy to navigate, the majority of their functionality is operable even in spotty Internet areas. Mobile Web apps, on the other hand, require Internet access to send and receive information, resulting in slower, less-efficient access. Since inaccessible or incomplete information can negatively affect customer loyalty, native apps provide a better ROI (return on investment) for c-stores.

    The differences in smartphone environments or platforms are equally important. Developing device-specific apps can be problematic and costly given the several varieties of smartphones on the market. For instance, iPhones, Androids and Blackberrys are three of the top sellers. Yet, developing individual apps for these three alone won't cover every smartphone user. Plus, device-specific apps can cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

    Focusing on one device, such as the iPhone, excludes almost two-thirds of smartphone users. Either way, the customer reach is narrowed. Moreover, what happens when customers switch phones since apps rarely transfer across devices? The link between the customer and c-store is severed. Responding to periodic changes in smartphone loyalty wastes time and money. The solution is to develop customized native apps supported on all platforms.

    The benefits of utilizing apps that operate on all smartphone devices are numerous. First, with infinite content, single customized apps maximize the marketing potential of time-sensitive coupons and promotions. For instance, sunny days become opportunities for discount car washes or fountain drinks, enticing customers beyond the pump and into the store. These apps also increase customer trust and purchasing confidence across the board. For example, the late-night shopper needing additional children's medication information can utilize manufacturer's links on the c-store app and not be hindered by their choice of smartphone.

    Custom apps operating on all smartphone devices also create manageable costs for convenience store executives. Initial development costs for one app vs. several are decisively lower. In the same vein, single app maintenance is more consistent and cost efficient. Also, redevelopment costs are avoided when consumers switch smartphone devices, and the seamless app transfer alleviates customer frustration.

    A single multi-device app provides a more predictable development cycle. In the competitive c-store industry, successful marketing is dependent upon a closely followed development plan. Take app launch planning, which is often critical for success. One application and one development timeline provides predictability and fewer headaches for the c-store executive.

    Also, apps supported on all smartphone devices generate greater brand integrity. App developers normally concentrate on one platform; iPhone developers create iPhone apps, for instance. Several developers working on several apps can negatively affect brand continuity. Single app development ensures consistency in app appearance and functions.

    Finally, because the primary motivation for c-store marketing will always be reaching the broadest consumer base, apps functioning on all smartphone devices have a promising future. Prime examples are the popular incentive programs and games used to entice more customers.

    "As retailers begin to merge mobile applications with loyalty programs, that is the future and that's where things are really going," Gaskins said. Novelties such as these, supported on all smartphone devices reach a broader market with great cost efficiency. In the same respect, future app possibilities, such as utilizing apps for 100 percent of c-store purchases, are more customer-inclusive with apps supported on all smartphones.

    With smartphone sales steadily rising, custom apps are becoming essential players in c-store marketing strategies. In an industry where enticing customers into the store is essential, quick, infinite content heightens brand recognition, increases consumer trust and raises revenues. By utilizing custom apps supported on all operating platforms, further cost efficiency is realized.

    Overall, c-stores who incorporate app technology into their marketing strategies today receive a leg up on their competitors in the future.

    John Kocher is the executive vice president of sales and marketing for MultiAd, a diversified marketing solutions company offering mobile app development. A graduate of Illinois State University, Kocher has been actively involved in the consumer goods industry since 1993. For further information, visit http://www.multiad.com.

    Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.

    By John Kocher, MultiAd
    • About John Kocher

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