A different shopping experience thanks to apps

Amidst all the noise and debate over whether Apple wields too much power as a platform is this undeniable fact: for brick-and-mortar retailers, mobile apps and the App Store have been a game-changer.

The earliest days of the pandemic brought retailers to a standstill. Customers, afraid to shop in-person for fear of the coronavirus, immediately turned to smartphones and laptops to purchase the things they needed and wanted. Curbside pick-up and home delivery of everything from groceries and meals to home improvement and pet food became the order of the day, forcing retailers to revamp e-commerce platforms and launch mobile apps in record time.

CNBC Technology Executive Council members Andy Laudato of The Vitamin Shoppe and Tractor Supply Company’s Glenn Allison understand this transformation first-hand. They recently spoke at a TEC livestream event on LinkedIn where they explained how digital apps transformed the entire shopping experience for their customers throughout the pandemic, why app users are their most loyal customers, and why those changes are here to stay.

With over 1,900 stores in 49 states, Tractor Supply Co. all but defines the rural lifestyle in retailing. Allison, vice president of customer facing applications and data analytics at the Brentwood, Tennessee-based company, says the pandemic pushed TSC to launch a wide range of digital capabilities, all designed to meet the newly changing needs of its customers. In addition to upgrading its website by leveraging the cloud through Microsoft’s Azure, TSC launched its first mobile app for consumers, he says.

Launching the app during the pandemic not only enabled TSC to give customers yet another safe, secure way to shop, Allison says, but it also enabled lots of other changes that added to the customer experience. Curbside pick-up was introduced chain-wide, enabling customers to order from their phone, tablet, or laptop and pick-up goods outside the store. The app also prompted the retailer to upgrade the Wi-Fi inside its stores and enable Wi-Fi access in its massive parking lots so that customers could connect easily and quickly.

“Whether customers were buying online or through the app, we wanted this curbside pickup to be just completely customer-focused and easy,” Allison says.

The Vitamin Shoppe is a retailer focused on health and wellness and both were top of mind when it came to employees and customers in the earliest days of the pandemic, says chief operating officer Andy Laudato. He says the company rushed to launch contactless payments like Apple Pay and others, provided digital receipts, and enabled customers to scan products themselves when they came into Vitamin Shoppe stores.

In 2014, the company launched an app to manage its loyalty program, Laudao says, but in 2017 expanded it to handle customer transactions. A separate internal app for employees enables salespeople to look up customer data and product details. “The vitamin and wellness categories are very complex and we needed a way to give our people the ability to understand and check on products so they could answer customer questions and make recommendations,” he says. There are also nutritionists within its stores and customers in the retailer’s loyalty program can schedule video chats and connect without ever having to come into a physical location.

Like TSC, The Vitamin Shoppe introduced curbside pick-up at its stores during the pandemic, and last summer partnered with Instacart for same-day delivery of its products. “There was so much acceleration of digital during the pandemic, but because all of these things make it easier for the customer to do business with us, they’re all staying,” Laudato says. “We can really offer seamless experiences across every single channel, with the app at the forefront of that.”

We can really offer seamless experiences across every single channel, with the app at the forefront of that.

Andy Laudato, COO, The Vitamin Shoppe

And while both Laudato and Allen recognize the margin implications of doing business in the App Store, they say they will follow customer preferences. “Generally our customers tend to download our app from the Apple ecosystem,” says Laudato. Allen says Apple has been “a great source of feedback and a direct link to our customers and what they’re looking for.”

“We have to make it easy for our customers to shop with us from anywhere and in any way they choose,” he adds. The pandemic might have forced that digital transformation to happen quickly for retailers, but it’s unlikely customers are ever going to want to shop any other way.