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Staples' mobile strategy based on customer convenience, loyalty

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Staples Inc. has a significant outreach based on mobile connections to its small-business customers that results from a “holistic approach” to customer service. “We're trying to provide value to our customers—whether they're in a store or trying to reorder in a pinch,” said Prat Vemana, director-mobile strategy for the office supplies retailer. Staples uses mobile to augment its customer service and loyalty efforts rather than supporting outbound marketing. “There can be this sense of urgency, such as running out of ink,” he said. “With our mobile apps, we make sure you get to your ink cartridge within two or three taps.” Vemana said mobile-enabled customers may order online, but they are also presented with a button that checks local store inventory—in case they want to pop in to fill the order immediately. Staples' mobile efforts started with its first mobile-optimized website in 2010, but began gathering steam last year. In June, Staples relaunched—m.staples.com—with enhanced capabilities. Besides looking better on small screens, the site now includes product ratings and reviews, an ink and toner finder, a store locator, store inventory lookup and enhanced on-site search, including an auto-suggest feature. Also introduced last year was a mobile app for iPhones and Android devices. Like the mobile website, the apps display product information, reviews and ratings, a store locator and an inventory feature, and add the ability to download coupons and promotions. Staples is promoting the apps for their “smart list-building” capabilities that track supply needs and alert customers to the status of their Staples Rewards, the company's volume discount program. Central to the company's mobile strategy is its “virtual supply closet.” “The idea is [that] we know your purchase history with us, and in addition we allow you to build your own lists of supplies,” Vemana said. “Here, you either can order on the go or bring your list to the store on your device.” To build virtual supply closets, users can scan products in stores with smartphones. That loads product information, SKUs and prices for quick follow-up orders. The lists can then be combined into batches, Vemana said, for different departments. The company has also created a tablet-optimized website—t.staples.com—that offers functionality similar to its smartphone apps, but with fuller product information and a quicker method for ordering. “One thing we learned is that tablets are more "transactional' than smartphones,” Vemana said. “So, when customers go to our tablet site, they'll see "My Orders' very prominently. He said this feature lets tablet users order supplies even more quickly. “Smartphones and tablets do overlap, but the ability to provide faster ways to make transactions is very important [to customers],” Vemana said. Staples doesn't ignore the social aspect. When customers are within a mile or so of a Staples retail store (determined using the geolocation feature of mobile devices), a coupon is automatically served up to them. Vemana said Staples' new mobile apps for smartphones and tablets embed sharing buttons but also allow viewers to write reviews, which is somewhat unusual on mobile sites. The company's mobile sites also feature “Easy Stories,” in which customers share how they worked to make business easier. It's a takeoff on the big red “Easy” button that reinforces the company's “That was easy” tagline. According to Vemana, mobile traffic has doubled over the past year. “Black Friday,” the shopping-focused day after Thanksgiving, saw mobile visits well above overall averages for that day, he said. “Mobile for us is a channel of innovation,” he said. “It's an opportunity for us to learn what customers are using, what they want, and to quickly implement solutions and keep moving. Certainly there is more to come.”
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