JCPenney’s Outgoing Mobile Chief: Digital Integration Vital for Retail Brands

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The future of retail is mobile. If this were not already common knowledge among retail insiders, recent developments would make it a truth impossible to ignore. Just last week, reports indicated that this year’s holiday shopping season will mark the first time more visits to shopping sites will come from mobile than desktop.

We are long past the days when retailers could consider themselves on the cutting edge of mobile innovation for offering customers a basic smartphone app. To find out what makes for an elite mobile retail strategy these days, Street Fight recently caught up with James Meeks, who just finished up a stint at the helm of JCPenney’s mobile products and will soon head over to Ebay to join their mobile & innovation team.

First, the basics. How long were you at JCPenney, what was your title, and what were your responsibilities over there?
I was at JCPenney about 3 years. I was the head of product for mobile there. My responsibilities were driving the digital roadmap for the JCPenney mobile products as well as building a best-in-class experience for our mobile app customers.

What do retailers need to do to keep up with the best mobile practices in the industry today?
You really have to build a team of subject-matter experts who are passionate about mobile. One of the things that was very important for me as well as building out my team was to make sure I had folks who were not just interested in retail, but who were mobile enthusiasts and cared about all things digital and all things mobile. They took that knowledge to figure out, ‘How do we take what we love about mobile from some of the best companies and figure out how to create an experience that makes the most sense for our customers?’

How has the task of crafting a top mobile strategy changed over the past few years, and how do you see it changing in the years to come?
Over the past few years there’s been a bigger interest, especially in the retail space, in creating mobile experiences that are not just based on shopping. They’re connected to the customer through the entire journey, whether they’re online or offline. What’s important is: How do you still talk to that customer and make sure they’re thinking about you even if they’re not necessarily going to buy something? Maybe they’re on their way to a store, maybe they need help finding something in a store.

Going forward, people should be paying attention to voice and conversational commerce and things of that nature because there are more and more of these connected devices in people’s homes. Amazon and Google and Apple are all putting these devices out, so it’s a matter of making sure your products are connected and talking to those specific products so that your customer can shop with you wherever they are in the world.

You just talked about the importance of creating a unified customer experience as the customer browses products in person, or on mobile, on desktop. Can you talk about the work you did on that at JCPenney and the challenges involved in doing that?
One of our goals was to focus on becoming a leader in the omnichannel space. Customers don’t really care if they’re in a store or online. They look at your brand and think your brand is connected completely. They want the same experience across all channels and all properties regardless of where they are.

It was important for us to connect to all these back-end systems that historically didn’t talk to each other. A perfect example of this was the price-check machines in the stores stopped working a while back. Customers would be looking for the price of an item, the tag might not have been updated, so they would go to an associate and dump all their items on the desk and ask the associate for the prices of the items. My team thought it was a colossal waste of time for associates to have to do something like this. We know everyone has a smartphone with them when they’re shopping nowadays, so we figured, ‘Why don’t we just connect our mobile app to the store’s pricing system?’ And now customers can just use the barcode reader in the app and find out the price instantly.

It’s things like that that. From an app standpoint, the customer is doing research, and they’re probably not going to buy that item online — they’ll buy it in the store. So, ultimately, from a sales perspective, my team isn’t going to get credit for it, but it’s revenue attribution at the end of the day, and we empower a customer to get something they might not have gotten.

Reports, including a recent one from Adobe Digital Insights, for example, indicate that consumers checking out items via mobile are still switching to desktop or going into the store to make purchases. What are the barriers to purchase on mobile itself, are retailers interested in eliminating those barriers, and what goes into that?
One of the biggest barriers is just the fact that mobile has become a research channel, so the intent isn’t always to purchase the same way it is on desktop.

James Meeks

What we try to do is eliminate some of those barriers by making the process so frictionless that a customer doesn’t have to do anything out of the ordinary in order to complete a purchase. For example, things as simple as creating a one-page check-out. If a customer has done business with us before, we save their information. Our checkout is one page, so all they need to do is review everything they put in their bag, review the prices, hit the place-order button, and off they go.

So it’s about simplifying so that customers are at ease with reviewing their items and then giving us their money.

How does the increase in mobile shopping affect a retailer’s advertising strategy? For example, do you take out more mobile ads on Facebook because you’re hoping to push someone scrolling through Facebook straight to a retail site?
It’s a large part of what retailers are doing nowadays, but where you’re going to spend those mobile advertising dollars really depends on your core customer and where they’re shopping. If you have an older customer, you tend to spend that money on Facebook. With a younger audience demographic, you might lean toward Instagram or Snapchat.

It just depends on knowing who your demo is, and figuring out what makes the most sense because you know where they spend their time in the world. Social is a big part of that. Getting in touch with those customers at those different touchpoints is important for any retailer because that’s how you get additional reach to customers who might not be thinking about you.

Any parting thoughts?
It’s an exciting time for mobile and retail in general. The most exhilarating thing about being in mobile is that it’s ever-changing. The traditional way of doing retail is dying; you have to reinvent yourself to stay relevant.

Joseph Zappa is Street Fight’s news editor. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015. You can contact him at [email protected]