The (Still Small) State of Retail Mobile Apps

retailappsApple celebrated 1.5 billion app downloads last week, but that heady number doesn’t tell the whole story of the one-year old App Store. It took Apple nine months to reach 1 billion app downloads. It took only three months to add another 500 million. That’s remarkable.

Take it as a given that most apps are faddish and have a short shelf life (think cowbells, lighters, “1,001 Pick Up Lines”). There are also apps that have expanded our perception of what is possible, like identifying a song almost anywhere using Shazam, or distinguishing a color on-the-fly using Benjamin Moore’s ben Color Capture. These are potent, uniquely mobile experiences. Apps in one form or another are here to stay.

So what are retailers doing on the app front? Not a lot, actually. There are so few retail apps that our R&A group can still track the major ones easily. Those that do exist – even the most basic ones – often attract attention. Apple’s top download lists regularly show that free apps tied to recognizable brand names are popular. That’s good news for marketers who have already built trusted recognizable brands.

There are many reasons why there aren’t more retail apps. The app phenom is still new, and some retailers don’t even have mobile-friendly ecommerce sites yet. Companies don’t want missteps to be blogged and tweeted across the universe. There are perception issues between app and website experiences, as customers expect to see wish lists, purchase history, etc. move seamlessly from one platform to another (still a rarity). And there are, of course, very real ROI considerations.

Will Retail Apps Really Matter?

Any retailer needs to consider goals, product mix and audience demographics when deciding to app or not to app, but yes, apps will matter — as a branding tool, as a way to build a richer customer relationship (check out the REI Bike Your Drive app) and as a way to sell goods in an increasingly mobile society.

I can provide the simplest example on app branding –- both the opportunities and challenges — from real life experience. I downloaded Target’s gift selector app late last year. Since then, I’ve had the Target logo in my hand for over 200 consecutive days. While TV commercials, circulars and emails are more likely to introduce me to new product lines and upcoming sales, that Target app remains part of my daily life. I wish the app was a bit more compelling, and I wish it thought a bit harder about how to make my life easier or more interesting. But Target’s logo will still be there the next time I pick up my iPhone. That’s a tremendous amount of untapped opportunity just waiting to be…well…tapped.

Glenn Lalich is VP of Research & Analysis at PM Digital.

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