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Open APIs: An indispensable link to customers

Neil Savage | Sept. 10, 2013
Public APIs let customers connect to you in new ways, but the interface must be easy for outside developers to work with.

But external developers wanted more, so the company added the ability to access reviews and ratings for products, find nearby stores, check whether certain products were available at particular stores, and purchase items through the website via mobile app, perhaps with a single click if the user had linked a credit card to the app.

It's been a hit. The mobile apps ShopSavvy, RedLaser and Milo all use BBYOpen. The makers of the app get a commission on sales through Best Buy's affiliate program. Shoppers can search for an item, or scan a bar code, and get information on pricing from various sellers.

Of course, that could mean that a customer using the app might wind up buying from a Best Buy competitor, but Bendt says that since websites and mobile apps have changed how people shop, what's important for Best Buy is to be in the mix. "If we're not in the consideration set, that's a missed opportunity." And the fact that the API makes it possible for people to find out if products they've purchased are available for pickup at nearby stores helps give Best Buy a competitive edge over online-only retailers, he says. "Now you can search for, buy and pick up within a matter or 20 to 40 minutes," says Bendt.

Tips for Creating Open APIs
Here's what you need to know about creating open APIs to your data:

Make it easy.Outside developers — those at your customers' shops — may have great ideas for how to use the data you make available, but the API itself needs to be understandable and easy to work with. Clear documentation and helpful tools are must-haves.

Make sure your licensing terms are clear and fair.Successful APIs tend to have MIT-style open-source software licenses.

Use REST unless you absolutely need SOAP.About three quarters of all APIs are REST-based, according to ProgrammableWeb, with SOAP a distant second.

Be prepared for cultural resistance.Some of the data "owners" may be reluctant to share the jewels. You might explain how the World Bank, Best Buy, Bloomberg and others have used the technique to reach customers in new ways and/or further their organization's mission.

- Neil Savage

The idea of an in-store pickup option actually came from external developers, Bendt says, and it took the chain some effort to adapt its legacy system to make inventory data available through the API; the data needed to be reformatted to be compatible. "The systems were built at a time before Web services and APIs were in active use," he explains. "It wasn't built in a way to expose it externally to the developer."

The specifics of how the team did that varied depending on the data source, but generally they tried to expose some snapshot of the data, updated as frequently as possible. If the data proved useful, they found ways to make it available in closer to real time.


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