May 11, 2011, 9:55 AM

Go ahead, push me around

Push notifications serve an important role in the mobile realm.

I remember distinctly when it happened. Sunday night, May 1. My iPad and iPhone chime almost simultaneously. It’s a push notification from The Huffington Post’s iPad and iPhone apps. It simply said the president was to address the nation shortly. It was 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, and out of the clear blue. What was happening? A national emergency? So I changed channels to CNN and watched as the story of Osama bin Laden’s death unfolded. Without those push notifications, I would have been in the dark until the following morning. Instead I got to see history unfold live.

A push notification is a message that comes with a small badge that appears atop an app’s icon, an alert sound or a window with a note, or a combination of the three. App users have to opt in to receive them, and they are usually asked to opt in the first time they open an app.

Push is a wonderful tool in the mobile world, where people generally want to be connected 24/7 and know exactly what is going on right now. And push lends itself very nicely to retail, where merchants can push out notifications for daily deals or alerts that an advance preview of a new catalog has been released for mobile shoppers only.

General Nutrition Centers Inc., aka GNC, uses push notifications in an ingenious manner. It’s created a system within its mobile app that customers can program to remind them when to take the supplements and vitamins they’ve purchased.

“We do this for two reasons,” says Jeffrey R. Hennion, executive vice president and chief branding officer. “The first is to be an added benefit that gives them a way to keep track of exactly what they are taking and remind them they can’t miss any. The second is to encourage repeat engagement. We don’t want an app that somebody installs, uses the first day, and then gets lost in clutter. Our bar code scanner, the deals, the regimen reminders, these all give the customer a reason to keep interacting with our app.”

Plus, GNC sometimes pushes out coupons customers can use in the mobile app. That’s certainly not a wasted or annoying push in my view.

But on that note, some retailers eschew push notifications. They say a retailer must have something truly compelling to announce. Otherwise, pushes could lead to consumers tuning out the retailer. Good point.

But I think there are many compelling reasons retailers can find to use push in their apps. Push notifications are a great way to keep customers informed and engaged. Isn’t that one of the ultimate goals of retailing?

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