Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus may be pretty late to the mobile app game, but it is coming in with an elegant design and some innovative functionality. In fact, you could say that it is solving for a problem we didn't know we had -- the space between a retail brand's virtual identity and its brick-and-mortar presence.
The new shopping app has all of the expected core features. You can shop much of the catalog in style. The image-driven app is as pretty as you would expect from the brand. Chic items seem to float in air as you swipe through the catalog. Product filtering, navigation and ordering is a breeze, especially if you are a registered member. There are the usual loyalty card integrations.
But the app excels and moves above the norm in a few key respects. First, it serves as a genuine view into almost all of the NM digital assets. The NM Connect section includes the latest fashion items related to the brand, videos and even local event listings. I also like that the NM site blog is integrated into the app as well as a fairly accessible version of the full and famous NM print catalog. I wish it were fully interactive, but I won't quibble. The full effect of this packed app is that the app is all-service. It is content-rich and actually gives the fashionista reason to come back even when they don't need to shop.
And then there are the direct links to live sales associates at each of the stores. No kidding. For each of the stores in the app there is a list of the major sales associates in the store. For each one there are ways to send them SMS, email, direct dial and even FaceTime chats. Yowie. My first response to the feature is a feeling of sympathy for the sales associates. Did anyone test this feature and how customers might use it…or abuse it…before letting it out into the wild?
To be sure, I only found this feature because I saw it mentioned in the announcement and drilled into the store listings to find it. The app does not drive the user to these associate contact links, nor does it suggest what kinds of questions the staffers will answer. Is this meant for inventory look-ups? To see if the hottest salesman on the floor is on duty?
And more to the point, did NM give all these folks dedicated smartphones and training on how to handle all manner of incoming messages? I actually tried Facetiming with one of the associates myself to find out how they were handling the flow. The call wasn't picked up and my associate seemed to try to call me back a few times, but the call never connected properly. The problem seemed to be related to connectivity on their end.
Okay -- so there may be some glitches, and it isn't even clear to me that NM wants customers to find this feature. But I have to say the basic idea is inspired. It leverages the basic functionality and intimacy of the phone to make direct contact with someone you may very well meet face to face in the local store. The model enhances a connection between the virtual and physical brand in a unique way.
In fact, the feature highlights the usual distance between a store's physical presence and its virtual one. Online and even on the phone, most brands are place-less, in that ether. But tying the app to a specific store by connecting the customer to a real life sales associate nearby is one way to bridge that divide. It seems like a simple thing. But it feels more personal and physically anchored to a store experience than a simple click to call an 800 number that is disconnected. It is using an app to extend the in-store interaction between customer and associate in a new way that is more natural and seamless.