Staples rapidly iterates in mobile to address online shift
By Chantal Tode
March 12, 2014
Staples' mobile Web site
As Staples intensifies its online focus in the face of floundering bricks-and-mortar sales, the office supplies giant is planning rapid iterations of its mobile applications and Web sites to quickly build a best-in-class mobile retail strategy.
Staples recently announced that with almost half of its sales coming from online, the retailer will close up to 225 physical stores. At the same time, it introducing a new iPhone app this year, its first iPad app and has put the resources in place to upgrade these as well as its mobile Web site on a frequent basis in order to better meet shoppers’ needs.
“We just submitted our iPhone app and we will probably go through dozens of changes in the next 12 months,” said Faisal Masud, executive vice president of global ecommerce at Staples, Framingham, MA. “We have not done that in the past.
“Our iPad app also goes out in a couple of months,” he said.
“Mobile Web is also going to be sharing the same architecture for our apps and everything to do with mobile will be shared architecture across the board. In some ways, that would be as close to responsive in the mobile environment [as we are going to get].”
Staples, which is the second largest Internet retailer behind Amazon.com, is also moving toward having the same architecture for its offerings across the mobile Web and apps but does not currently see responsive Web design as providing a strong enough user experience on mobile. Responsive Web design, a process promising the ability to write code once and deliver content across desktop, tablets and mobile, has been adopted by many businesses but also has holdouts.
Here, Mr. Masud discusses what is and is not working on mobile, why Staples is not sold on responsive Web design yet and why store locators do not have a lot of value on mobile.
Where is Staples’ focus in mobile this year?
First, we want to get our apps out the door and also continue to see the progress on our m.dot sites.
On our dot.com site, we’ve gone through four different iterations over the last six to eight months and we are seeing pretty spectacular results.
We took the approach of less is more.
Back six to eight months ago, our sites looked a lot more like the previous value proposition for our customers. We were the dominant office supplies retailer. Since we are now much more dominant now in business products and a service provider to all of our businesses, we took the approach, let the businesses decide what they want to buy. We are going to put our half a million SKU’s in front of them and they are going to pick and choose what they want. Rather than letting them see what we have, we let them discover what we have on their own.
There was a lot more focus on ink and toner and paper and supplies in the past iterations of what we had on the mobile Web. If you go today to m.staples.com, you will see that our customers have been voting for facilities in the break room, electronics and other more relevant items for them. In fact, we are seeing a much larger propensity of customers to buy those products on mobile.
We’ve made the design very simple. There is a lot of white space and we’ve tried to keep it as lightweight as possible so the customer can come in and leave with what they need very quickly rather than have a very heavy site.
How has Staples’ mobile experience changed in the past eight months?
It has been more about reducing the number of clicks for a customer to purchase on mobile.
Our previous focus was much more on, let’s tell them where to go to find the store. What we found very quickly, when they want that, they are usually going to Google to find where the store is, so the value of doing that, it is not that huge.
So, changes were made to incorporate what is most relevant to the customer who is looking to be in and out of that store on the mobile Web.
For propagating your address, we are actually hooked in with Google where we can predict your address the moment you start typing the first number or letter because we know where you are when you are firing up the app or on the Web. We make it very easy for the customer, if they are a first time customer, to checkout during that process and give us their address and their credentials.
The other component that was not there on mobile maybe six to eight months ago – it was not a fast experience. It is now probably at par with everybody else or faster.
What changes had to be made from an operational standpoint to enable the rapid iteration on mobile?
We had to deploy a separate team to get this done. It is more about resourcing, which was a constraint earlier. How do we make sure we have the resources available to make mobile a big deal.
The Velocity Lab [Staples’ innovation lab that was launched in late 2012] is what lead to the beginning of how do we make sure that we have a dedicated team that can deploy this.
In the past, it was a proxy site scrap for our mobile Web, which was super slow. The experience was not that great.
We’ve built APIs now so that has made it a lot more easy and convenient and faster for load times for us. That’s been one of the big successes for us. None of that would come without allocating resources specifically for mobile, which today represents about 30 percent of our traffic.
How is the content pushed out to the mobile Web?
We are using the same content that is available on desktop but we are manipulating the way the content is delivered on mobile because of the fact that the real estate is so different.
All of our services are catered to all of our properties - there is no separate thing being built just for mobile.
We pick and choose what content and specific assets to deliver to each device.
From every change that we’ve made, and we’ve made multiple changes, if not dozens, we look at the entire journey end to end, and figure out where the latency exists, where the bounces are happening and where are we not improving the experience overall.
Our focus is on our key inputs, being can we create and deliver the content that users are looking for and is that being delivered with incremental benefit to the customer.
When it comes to channel agnostic delivery of a responsive type environment, when do we see that happening? I feel we will probably go down that path at some point. I just don’t see why we have to focus on the specific methodology rather than the customer itself at this stage.
Why is responsive Web design not the right answer for Staples?
For us, it is more wait and see. First, we are sort in a state right now where we have to address the needs on our hands today. Second, is responsive really the right way to go or not? There are multiple theories out there about what is right for the customer.
I think while it is impressive that you can have the same experience across all platforms, for a retailer like Staples, I think we want to be a little bit more personalized.
Also with responsive there is a latency that is added to the overall experience because a phone is a lot smaller than a desktop. We feel at this stage that because of our legacy code, where are right now and how fast our mobile is growing already with its own unique experience, that it is ok to wait and see until later. There is no big rush to do that first.
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York
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