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What do retailers have in common with APIs?

I know this sounds like the start of a thread in the depths of a developer help forum, but it’s actually a premise that I believe in: this is how retailers will exist in future.

For retail brands, owned destinations or services are starting to matter less and less. Whether that is the marketplaces and social channels of today, the messaging apps of tomorrow, or the artificially intelligent personal assistants of the future – how brands are hooked up to the services and systems we already use are becoming much more important.

Why you ask? Simple. Shopping is no longer a destination game. Think about the last time you bought something. Did you go straight to the store of the brand you bought from? Or did you Google the best price, spot someone on Instagram wearing it, or click on a link in an email? We shop based on need, impulse or recommendation, and the decisions we make start way before we encounter the brand.

That means where we shop, or who we buy services from, is more often dictated by convenience, proximity, shipping speed or cost, than it is by brand. They’re fuelled by search, in the moment decisions, email offers, social media inspiration and peer recommendations. It’s the moment of intent that is key.

What retailers need to consider

It’s clear to me that retailers can’t just live on their proprietary platforms and owned spaces anymore. So what can these brands do to show up in the places, platforms and experiences that consumers are buying into? They can make their retail experience something that can be seamlessly plugged in anywhere. You guessed it! Just like an API.

Here are some rules of building a great API that retail brands can learn from:

Provide a valuable service

Consumers don’t just want retail spam clogging up their day-to-day digital experiences. In the past few years there has been huge backlash over the marketing bombardment from ad-blockers and aggressive spam filters.

Retail brands should seek to make the path to purchase easy, not intrusive. If how and where you show up isn’t enhancing the experience and making things easier for the consumer, you can count yourself out. Pinterest rolled out an example of this last year with Buyable Pins -- enabling consumers to buy directly from retailers within the Pinterest app.

The integration and service also needs to add value to the user. For example, Uber integrated with Facebook Messenger in the US to offer a ride to those chatting about a journey. That service is valuable – it makes it easier for the consumer to order a ride, split their bill or share their arrival time with their friends. But more importantly, the Uber ride is requested at the moment of intent, within the conversation, without ever having to leave the Messenger app. This is value. This is convenience. This is hooking the customer in context.

Make it simple, flexible and easily adopted

Retail brands need to think hard about how they maintain their brand identity, all while adapting to the context their products or services are served in. It’s important for how your products and services appear to fit the platform or experience they arrive in, and still be a known and trusted brand.

Flexibility is key for the content to marry up with the context. This isn’t just about the platform, but the brand also needs to be equipped to accommodate the degrees of personalisation required to serve the right product at the right time. This could be taking advantage of audience data and segmentation served by your partner platform, or ensuring your own CMS and customer data is well mapped.

If you build it, shoppers won’t just come. Retailers have to set out to engineer the ‘serendipity’ of a consumer finding its product or service, by plugging into the platforms that they already live on and the contexts where they are inspired to buy.

However most of them don’t have the internal teams or development skills to do this successfully. This brave new world of convenience and serendipity for the consumer, is built on a highly technical foundation. But this doesn’t mean retailers have to go away and build their own dev shops internally. Retailers should get to focus on what they do best, leaving the coding to those embedded in those languages. Retailers need to look for low-code tools, such as PayPal Commerce, that help them plug their products and services into the right experience. This is a whole new world for retail brands and they need to find the right skills and partners to develop the next winning formulas.

Harper Reed, Head of Commerce at Braintree