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6 lessons from Gap’s mobile journey to date

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Any retailer’s tale of their mobile journey so far is really just the first chapter or so of a much longer story. But that first chapter is often the most interesting - a challenge is set, obstacles arise that must be overcome, a few initial lessons are learned to guide the protagonist in the adventures yet to come. At the recent digital retail marketing workshop in San Francisco, Dave Barrowman, Senior Director of Product Management, Gap Inc. Direct recounted Gap’s mobile journey to date and some of the lessons they have learned along the way.

 “Even if you don’t build it, they will come.” Some years ago Barrowman (who has a development background as well) was so intrigued by the idea of mobile phones for retail that he actually created a prototype on his then-leading edge Treo 600. Gap didn’t pursue the idea further until the iPhone launched, at which point they realized that, with nothing else in place, customers were looking for Gap on their smartphones and simply “getting the desktop experience on the phone – and that had to change,” Barrowman said.

Customers want good functionality and clean design – but it may take several tries to nail it. With smartphone technology continuing to evolve rapidly, Gap decided to get serious about a mobile website. “In typical Gap fashion, we stepped back, talked to lots of customers [for input] and came up with the critical components for a smartphone platform," he said. Number one on the customer wish list: a store locator. Barrowman noted that as the days get closer to Christmas, store locator usage can actually triple.

As for navigation, Gap focused on creating a “clean design – easy to read fonts, big buttons." In the first iteration, Gap even went so far as to utilize Apple icons to indicate things like “more” and “fewer”. Turns out, customers didn’t always understand those icons, and instead wanted to see very literal messages. Gap responded by switching navigation elements such as a button with “more” spelled out, a button labeled “images only” for an images-only view, and a “menu” button to take the user to other parts of the site without having to back up through multiple pages.

Even on a small screen, you need a balance of product and marketing content. Customers told Gap that they wanted a very visual experience – meaning that even on the smartphone, they wanted access to the same alternative views, product catalog, zoom, product reviews, and all that they get while navigating the Gap website. When the initial Gap smartphone site launched in 2010, it featured an almost exclusively product focus – with no marketing content to speak of. By 2011, however, Barrowman said the team realized, “There was a disparity between the marketing content in emails and what was shown when the customer clicked through from the marketing email to the smartphone site." In keeping with the need for a clean design and easy navigation, the Gap team had to get creative with presenting content such as offer details so the smartphone site now uses pop ups instead of separate pages for some non-product content to reduce the overall number of page loads needed.

You will need to manage across brands – and across markets. Another design and development challenge: How to let customers shop all five brands on one universal mobile site, since the more sites you have, the more you have to manage. Gap opted to give customers an easy to use menu to seamlessly move from one brand to the next, while keeping a universal cart across all five. Since that time, Gap also has launched smartphone sites for the Canadian and EU markets, with a few adaptations to local market needs – currency denominations, security verification seals such as Verified by Visa in the EU, a French-language site for Canada.

Just like the web, smartphone sites need continual review and revamping. Barrowman noted his personal observation that where we are with mobile today is much like early web days – except that consumer adoption is already through the roof. Everyone, and as Barrowman quipped, “and their mother – literally” has ideas and opinions about mobile design and development. In the vein of continuous improvement, Gap last year added order status and “suggested sells” to its smartphone site. Apps designed to give consumers in-store functionality such as product scanning and ordering out of stock items were initially outsourced but have since been brought back in-house.

What's next for Gap? Addressing mobile performance, to which Barrowman added, "Most sites are frustratingly slow, but performance is critical." Also on the horizon is simplifying management of multiple sites across brands and markets, optimizing email for mobile devices when different devices render the same email differently, and “bridging the gap from the virtual and physical” to find a common thread across devices and the store.