How APIs Can Save Bricks-and-Mortar Retail

Walgreen's Partners to Create Apps for Ordering Photo Prints at the Local Store

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Take a trip to a few local drug stores and ask the pharmacists to define the acronym API. Chances are they won't know.

But if it's a Walgreen's, thanks to a new API ("application-programming interface") you can order prints of photos you have taken with apps like Pinwheel or GroupShot from your local Walgreen's and pay for them -- all via the Pinwheel or GroupShot app on your mobile phone.

As the World Wide Web becomes the World Wide World, brick-and-mortar stores and chains like Walgreen's are being forced to reckon with more than just the maintenance of their website and social-media profiles to stay relevant. They must rethink the way their goods and services are marketed and distributed.

That's why earlier this month Walgreen's launched a portal that offers application developers tools -- a package called the QuickPrints software development kit -- for integrating customer access to the chain's photo-printing service. Developers can get a cut of referral revenue, encouraging them to promote this service, creating an online-style affiliate network for the physical world.

While this may not seem groundbreaking, for eCommerce gurus it is a tremendous step forward in the integration of digital technology into physical space. A number of APIs are available from big-box retailers such as Best Buy and Sears, but they are geared toward selling products, as opposed to offering services like Walgreen's.

As a retail marketer or advertiser, you can ask yourself some questions to help decide whether to consider some an API platform to assist in your marketing and advertising:

  • Is there potential to make shopping at my stores easier, more efficient or even more fun and social?
  • Are elements of my business model being severely disrupted by digital technology?
  • Does my distribution chain cost too much and take too long?
  • Is my retail location no more than a showroom without added value?
  • Are digital substitutes eating my lunch?

If the answer to these questions is yes, perhaps an API-platform strategy is the solution. Here are a few key benefits you might realize from such an approach:

  • You open up your services to new distribution channels -- digital channels unencumbered by physical obstacles.
  • You create new advertising opportunities with developers.
  • You can leverage the creativity of the developer community and not have to rely on your agency, which may not be savvy in this regard.

For brick-and-mortar retailers the threat of substitution has never been more widespread. The fact that a consumer can easily scan a product in your store with Amazon's smartphone app and find alternatives can turn your once thriving retail business into nothing more than a showroom. The cutting edge strategist will, however, look for new ways to leverage digital technologies to create new service opportunities that add value to the end users. There is a cost to create the API with a developer, but it can be amortized easily over time if the program is successful. The integration only needs to happen once. If done well it can keep the foot traffic marching on and the dollars flowing in.

Adam Broitman is chief creative strategist at Something Massive, which acquired Cir.cus, the agency he co-founded, in March. Broitman has worked in a variety of roles at Digitas, Morpheus Media and Crayon.
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