All Hail the Rise of Super Apps: And How Savvy Retail Players Can Claim a Slice of the Action

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By Leon Gauhman, Chief Strategy Officer of Digital Transformation Consultancy Elsewhen

With the average Brit “overwhelmed” by stress, enjoying markedly less leisure time now than 40 years ago, it’s no surprise that most consumers crave simplicity from their digital journeys. Good marketing in an age of saturation looks like streamlined, concise interactions with ease of use taking centre stage. Part of this approach has given rise to a new league of so-called “super apps”: brands that provide a single port of entry to multiple products and services.

From Uber’s positioning as the “Amazon of transportation” to WeChat’s cross-border e-commerce platforms, some of digital’s most ambitious players are racing to become the virtual shopping malls of an online age. Like their erstwhile brick-and-mortar cousins, these online giants are designed to integrate digital lifestyles with easy, integrated solutions that harness consumer needs across a wide range of spheres; including gaming, finance, shopping and more.

At one level, it seems like a no-brainer for retailers to pan for super app gold. Many successful operators already lie at the heart of an entertainment ecosystem that stretches well beyond shopping; whether that’s Stella McCartney’s latest collaboration with Disney, or Boots’ lucrative Love Island partnership. From travel to cinema and banking, there are so many complementary sectors that could sit comfortably within a retailer’s app-based expansion of its trusted brand.

On the flip side, however, launching a super app is no clear-cut feat; it requires a strong stomach, sizable resources and a can-do culture that defines new-age digital disruption. It also demands clarity of thought – about what exactly a retailer’s brand stands for, and which services might tee well within its proposed platform. Here are six key factors that global retailers need to consider before taking the plunge.

1. Identify Your Customers’ “Needs Ecosystem” and Simplify “Jobs to Be Done”

Wannabe global retail and ecommerce brand Klarna is having a challenging year – as losses mount and regulators start sabre-rattling about BNPL. But that hasn’t stopped the company growing rapidly, with more than 100m customers worldwide embracing the service. As part of its wider growth plan, Klarna is eyeing super app status with its claim to satisfy “all your shopping needs”.

The app covers payments, deliveries, shopping, returns and deals all within one portal. Retail brands wanting to follow suit need to deeply understand the context of their own customers’ behaviour and their “needs ecosystem” around the existing brand app. What needs/tasks do they have which compels them to leave your brand experience and go elsewhere? Simplifying people’s lives by offering a one-stop shop within your app is the holy grail of great customer experience.

2. Don’t Stray Too Far From Your Initial Business Model

It’s tempting to try and emulate WeChat which stretches across gaming, messaging and payments; and there are attempts to replicate this model in Asia. For example, users can buy medical insurance, movie tickets or video streaming services on Grab from Singapore. Indonesia’s Gojek users, meanwhile, can enjoy ride-sharing, food delivery, gaming services and book massage appointments.

Yet, global retailers need to be cautious about using these platforms as a blueprint. WeChat owes its existence to the centralised structure of the Chinese economy, and most global retail brands will be more successful if they look first to complementary/adjacent opportunities.

PayPal’s quest for super app status is currently focused on finance and retail, for instance, while Airbnb has the scale to pursue a similar model – but its primary objective lies in consolidating its position as a go-to travel platform.

3. Consider Collaborating With Like-Minded Partners

Super apps are only of any value if they deliver on a brand’s central customer promise – rather than being a force fit. The areas a retailer moves into should feel natural and organic, rooted in genuine insights. Maybe, then, the super app ambition is best realised by partnering with a like-minded brand that has complementary skills.

Could Tesco join forces with an agile fintech brand to combine flexible payment options and budgeting expertise, thus helping customers negotiate the cost of living crisis? Could Airbnb partner John Lewis to offer customers a “shop the look” service around its most stylish homes? In 2021, Prada, Cartier and LVMH joined forces to create a blockchain consortium for the luxury goods sector. Imagine how a luxury super app might look if these brands joined others in their sector to offer financial products and holiday experiences to their captive customer base.

4. Double Down on Data Management

There is no super app opportunity without the requisite back-up of “super” data analytics. Huge amounts of data, combined with the ability to interpret those insights, are required to offer the range of experiences and services that go into a super app.

So if data analytics is already proving a challenge in your core retail offering, think twice about trying to migrate users to a non-core business. Keep in mind also that increased reliance on data brings new challenges with it – for example, around privacy and security. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts in data aggregation: consumer anger when Tata in India built its own super app and migrated existing consumer data from other Tata services without their permission, should be seen as a cautionary tale.

5. Take a Sector-Specific Design Approach to CX

It’s hard enough to get a basic app right, so be prepared for a super app-sized CX design challenge. The app user may be the same person but the way they interact with a suite of different services will vary in frequency, approach and perhaps even their patience/toleration levels. Uber has super app ambitions – yet it also recognised that Uber and UberEATs required their own distinct app interfaces.

Just because the mainstay of your customer experience is working well, it doesn’t mean it will translate easily to another sphere. IT teams will need to test and learn to make sure they solve customers’ problems in the new arena.

6. Prioritise Payment Solutions

APIs and open banking are decoupling payments and lending from banks, opening up routes for brands to embed financial services into their key offer. Building on the trust relationship retailers have with customers, there is an opportunity to rethink how financial products are offered alongside other services.

Some observers even suggest the payment process is the glue that holds the entire super app edifice together. Walmart certainly thinks so, which is why the supermarket chain is investing heavily in fintech capabilities as the first stage in its shift towards super app status.

In the fragmented, fast-paced world of digital retail, super apps carry the promise of a Midas touch with the provision of simple, slick, one-stop lifestyle services. Yet, like all promises of gold, this one should be treated with caution – and a steady-handed commitment to brand data and purpose – in order to reap the treasures ahead.