In the mobile-led, digital-first world, retailers must blend digital and store experiences, refocus on retention and customer loyalty and serve customers as individuals.

Bernardo de Albergaria

Bernardo de Albergaria, chief commercial officer at Airship

Statistics show the holiday season was a culmination of 2020’s staggering boom in mobile shopping. COVID-19 last year kept many shoppers at home, where their purchases on mobile apps reached $112 billion and grew year-over-year by 25%. Mirroring the latter data point, Black Friday sales on smartphones increased 25% compared to 2019, totaling $3.6 billion and making up 40% of total online spending.

Of course, mobile isn’t the only online channel seeing significant growth: digital retail has also exploded during the pandemic, as sales grew 44% year-over-year in the second quarter and 37% in Q3.

It’s clear retail marketers now live in a mobile-led, digital-first world. Here are three big takeaways from last year that will continue to be driving factors in 2021 and beyond.

Blend mobile and physical experiences seamlessly

For a long time, mobile retail was about delivering offers to drive people into stores or getting them to buy something online. Now, mobile is about simultaneously helping customers online and offline due to the multi-faceted ways they shop and the type of experiences they expect throughout.

These customer journeys evolved rapidly in 2020, propelling the retail space to years ahead of where it would have been without the COVID crisis. This reality is especially apparent with the BOPIS experience (buy online/pickup in-store), which went from a cutting-edge convenience for time-starved customers to an every-day operational necessity during the pandemic. Both in-store and curbside pickup jumped 52% on Black Friday, making curbside pickup and contactless commerce part of the new normal.

What flexibility do you offer? When will my order be ready? Why were you dissatisfied with your returned purchase? What curbside parking spot are you in, how long will it take for delivery to my car?

Smart mobile apps notifications and SMS can help answer these questions before the user asks. Not only does this dramatically improve customer experiences, but mobile also can do the same for retail employees, who are vital for today’s CX. Mobile apps and SMS can keep them in sync about customers’ preferences, the status of their orders, backroom inventory availability and customers’ exact location for curbside pickup.


Build loyalty intelligently on mobile 

That’s all good, but at the same time, today’s retail customers are not that loyal. One-third to nearly half of shoppers in the U.S., U.K., and other parts of Europe surveyed by McKinsey’s Periscope switched brands or retailers in 2020. Better relevancy can help overcome such changes of heart by customers.

Mobile shopping started to scratch the surface of yielding more helpful and contextual information to individuals years ago. But more data-driven, contextual, and personalized engagement will become more critical as consumers are receiving more and more communications from brands: email and experts expect mobile messaging volumes to increase by 40% in 2021! Marketers can create value only via relevancy throughout the customer lifecycle with behavior-triggered messaging. These can include “back in stock” for previously unavailable items, abandoned shopping cart reminders, alerts for wish list items now on sale, buying guides for product categories they just viewed and much more.

In a digital-first world, the cost to try other brands is essentially zero, meaning marketers must go far beyond basic reward programs to grow loyal customers. New app users need better onboarding, and AI can predict when longtime customers are at risk of churning. AI can help retailers provide intelligent, right-timed offers based on a customer’s usage patterns while increasing the use of location-enabled services that delivers precise and streamlined experiences. For instance, location opt-in rates improved  to 10.7% in the first few months of the pandemic’s onset, the highest average rate since before the passage of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules.

Embrace omnichannel and 1:1 marketing

Not all app users will opt-in to push notifications, not all emails get read, and retailers shouldn’t use channels like SMS too frequently for generic promotions. The more ways a brand can interact with customers, the better it can intelligently orchestrate those experiences, which grows customer value. For beauty retailer Ulta, omnichannel members spend three times more per year than in-store-only customers. In the case of Nike’s customers, those who connect with the brand on two or more retail channels have four times the lifetime value compared to other patrons.


The great thing about Nike is that it embraces omnichannel and 1:1 marketing. brand, in a recent earnings call, said that store patrons identify themselves more and more as Nike mobile app members, helping the brand link their purchases to their other data from its premium suite of Nike Training Club services.

With this rich, first-party data, Nike can personalize and tailor customer engagement at a 1:1 level, gaining an advantage with mobile-first services and data that customers value and engage with.

When the going gets tough, the tough optimize for the future

In the last nine months, we have witnessed unprecedented change across every region and industry sector. While not all brands can scale to Nike-sized digital ambitions, few marketers would say digital is unimportant or that what they are doing is fully optimized. Mobile’s acceleration increases the importance of making minor, continuous improvements to the customer experience through ongoing testing and experimentation. Brands can be at their customers’ fingertips 24/7 and proactively serve them in highly contextual ways, but this idea is a privilege that’s continually earned and easily revoked.

Today’s mobile-led, digital-first world requires brands to blend digital and physical experiences, refocus on retention and customer loyalty and proactively serve customers at an individual, one-to-one level. These are quickly becoming the expectation of consumers and must-haves for retailers that want the best levers for accelerated growth.


Airship is a mobile platform designed to help retailers and other brands manage customer engagement, including the use of push notifications.