December 4, 2023

With all the noise and the discussion about whether Apple wields too much power as a platform, this fact is undeniable: mobile apps and the app store were a game changer for brick-and-mortar retailers.

The first days of the pandemic brought retail to a standstill. Customers who feared shopping in person for fear of the coronavirus immediately turned to smartphones and laptops to buy the things they needed and wanted. Picking up and delivering everything from groceries and meals to home improvement and roadside pet food was the order of the day, forcing retailers to revamp e-commerce platforms and bring mobile apps to market in record time.

CNBC Technology Executive Council members Andy Laudato of The Vitamin Shoppe and Glenn Allison of Tractor Supply Company understand this transformation firsthand. They recently spoke at a TEC livestream event on LinkedIn where they explained how digital apps changed the entire shopping experience for their customers during the pandemic, why app users are their most loyal customers, and why those changes are here to stay.

With over 1,900 stores in 49 states, Tractor Supply Co. defines the rural retail lifestyle. Allison, vice president of customer-facing applications and data analytics for the Brentwood, Tennessee-based company, says the pandemic has led TSC to bring a wide range of digital features to market, all of which are tailored to meet the changing needs of its customers . In addition to upgrading its website to use the cloud over Microsoft’s Azure, TSC has launched its first consumer mobile app, he says.

The launch of the app during the pandemic not only enabled TSC to offer customers another safe way to shop, Allison says, it also enabled many other changes that improved the customer experience. Roadside collection has been implemented chain-wide so that customers can order from their phone, tablet or laptop and collect goods outside the store. The app also prompted the retailer to upgrade the WiFi in their stores and enable WiFi access in their huge parking lots so customers could connect easily and quickly.

“Whether customers bought online or through the app, we wanted this roadside pickup to be just completely customer-centric and easy,” says Allison.

The Vitamin Shoppe is a health and wellness focus retailer, and both were paramount with employees and customers in the early days of the pandemic, says Chief Operating Officer Andy Laudato. He says the company rushed to market contactless payments like Apple Pay and others, provided digital receipts, and allowed customers to self-scan products when they got into Vitamin Shoppe stores.

According to Laudao, the company launched an app in 2014 to manage its loyalty program, but expanded it in 2017 to handle customer transactions. Salespeople can use their own internal app for employees to access customer data and product details. “The vitamin and wellness categories are very complex and we needed a way to give our employees the ability to understand and review products so they can answer customer questions and make recommendations,” he says. There are also nutritionists in their stores, and customers in the retailer’s loyalty program can schedule video chats and connect without ever having to get to a physical location.

Like TSC, The Vitamin Shoppe introduced curb pickup in its stores during the pandemic and partnered with Instacart for same-day delivery of its products last summer. “Digitization accelerated so much during the pandemic, but because all of these things make it easier for customers to do business with us, they all remain,” says Laudato. “We can really deliver seamless experiences on every single channel, with the app at the forefront.”

We can really deliver seamless experiences on every single channel with the app at the forefront.

Andy Laudato, COO, The Vitamin Shoppe

And while both Laudato and Allen recognize the impact of doing business on the App Store on margin, they say they will follow customer preferences. “In general, our customers tend to download our app from the Apple ecosystem,” says Laudato. Allen says Apple is “a great source of feedback and a direct connection to our customers and what they’re looking for.”

“We need to make it easy for our customers to shop with us from anywhere and in any way,” he adds. The pandemic may have made the digital transformation happen quickly for retailers, but it is unlikely that customers will ever want to shop any differently.