An experiment in trying to combat my own deep-seated prejudices.

If you saw me in the street and said “hey Christopher Ratcliff, noted ecommerce and digital marketing expert, I run a successful retail website and was thinking of building a mobile app. Is this a good idea or a bad idea?” I would reply with the following…

“Well this fake moustache and cowboy hat disguise is clearly not working, but your flattery has touched me greatly and as soon as you’ve let go of my arm I shall answer your question right away.”

Then as soon as you’ve ungrasped my arm I will feel comfortable enough to say “no of course you shouldn’t build an app, they’re a complete waste of time, money and only a complete buffoon would think they’re a good idea” before running off into the night, leaving nothing behind but a fake moustache dangling in the breeze.

So yeah, I’m not much of a fan of apps. But why is that? Why do I think they’re such a pointless waste of resources? In this article I’m going to try and get to the bottom of my own rationale, before tossing it aside to present as many reasons I can find which challenge my own preconceptions and maybe those of other naysayers too. 

Why apps suck 

I’m not going to lie, writing that heading provoked a mischievous grin, which clearly means I’m doing something wrong, but here for the record are all the reasons why apps are pointless.

  1. Many apps are built purely because they are perceived as trendy, rather than useful. Appearing in an app store is seen as nice for the multichannel portfolio rather than vital for the customer. If an app isn’t actually necessary, the time, effort, money and resources needed to build it is a waste of resources.
  2. And frankly it is a waste of time. As a retailer you should be prioritising mobile web presence in the form of a responsive, adaptive or .m site, not a completely separate tool which needs to be downloaded from a store.
  3. Speaking of which, if I’m a user out-and-about happily using my data to research products, I don’t want to have to download your mobile presence in app form in order to find out yourproduct information. It’s time consuming, data-draining, phone memory stealing and boring. Give me a mobile website every time please.
  4. Information is integral to all apps, the creation and management of data needs to be the framework around which the rest of the app is built. As my project manager/web designer friend Joachim Farncombe has stated in an app-related blog post of his: “you can see people’s eyes glaze over when people like me talk about the need to create info first and apps later. Apps are sexy. Information management is really dull.” 
  5. In my experience of retail apps, I’m often frustrated when they’re mainly built just for catalogue purposes or to give store information. There are many instances where I’ve discovered that I can’t make a purchase within the app, and I have to visit a mobile site to do so. The app download was therefore pointless.
  6. Finally (for the time being) the novelty is wearing off. In Ben Davis’s article from last year, he revealed that paid apps are dying off and account for less than 10% of app downloads. Data from Distimo has shown that 76% of app store revenue comes from in-app purchases, not from charging for the app right away. But of most concern for retailers is that free apps are also seeing slowed growth. As the mobile web improves in terms of connectivity, faster data speeds and the desire for ‘mobile first’ desktop websites, people are realising that apps are no longer necessary for anything non-game or tool related. 

That was a whole heap of negativity wasn’t it? Let’s see if we can’t redress the balance a little. After all I’m keeping half an eye on my iPhone and I realise that I do... shhh... have a few retailer apps on there.

So what makes me use the few retailer apps that I do have?

Let’s take the eBay app as an example. If you’re already familiar with the eBay app then you will have just nodded in recognition of its user friendly beauty and general brilliance. 

The eBay app is a masterclass in app design, so much so that I prefer using it to the desktop version of eBay. 

There are smaller elements that make it preferable: the simpler layout, the less cluttered design, the pure joy of a swipable interface, to the much more sophisticated tools such as the ability to use the camera to immediately upload images and scan barcodes for product information. 

These are handy, time-saving features that only the mobile app can utilise, and which make it the superior version of the eBay experience. It's an example of an app that deserves to exist. It’s clear that it was developed completely separately from the desktop site, with the mobile user experience top of mind.

Other retailer apps that I kept beyond the initial download and have so far refused to delete include Tesco, Threadless and the Argos app. The reasons behind why I like these are similar to the ones behind my retention of the eBay app. I like the design and certain camera functionalities. But then again each one of these retailers already has a perfectly great mobile website, so what’s the point of them having an app?

Let’s explore those reasons right now...

Why retailers should have an app

Your competition has one

Quite simply, if someone who loves using apps is looking for a good fashion retail app to download and your fashion retail brand doesn’t have one, than that person is going to download your rival’s and give it all their app-related custom. According to NN4M’s blog post on retail apps, about 79% of the top 25 retailers in the UK have transactional mobile apps, while 40% of the top 125 do.  

Some people just love using apps

Look at your smartphone with its giant screen. That screen is just begging to be filled with lovely little square images. And that screen is only going to get bigger too. Some people just love using apps, it’s been ingrained in them since they first bought an iPhone and started rinsing the app store for all its worth. Why spite them by saying “apps are dead, use the mobile web instead, it’s much trendier” when apps are just what they prefer. Surely the first rule of commerce is customer satisfaction.

According to Flurry, and as reported in the NN4M article, in 2014, mobile users spent 14% of their smartphone usage time on mobile web compared to 86% of that time in apps. Flurry also found that consumers spent more time in retailer apps than apps in any other shopping category.

Increased conversion

According to an ABI Research survey 40% of US respondents who had downloaded a retailer app said they bought more of that brand’s products. 46% also said the app caused them to visit the store more often. Walmart customers who use its app spend 40% more than customers who don’t. 

Communicate with your customers instantly

Your app can use push notifications to immediately inform users of information, updates or other relevant news. Just don’t bombard them day and night or you’ll soon see your app deleted, as users can rarely be bothered to go into Settings and turn off the notifications for your particular app.

Ease of payment

An app can utilise the smartphone’s inbuilt technology (camera, ibeacon, NFC) to make in-store payments a breeze. Forget contactless payment, imagine not even needing a card at all. 

Improving in-store experiences

It’s not just mobile payments that can be improved in-store, but the whole customer experience can be improved too if you have that retailer’s app downloaded.

iBeacons are currently helping Apple identify customers in its stores, greet them via the app, be guided through the store's layout, be shown product information and be offered on-the-spot promotions. 

Extra value 

Again, if an app is to be vital to the user and to even justify its very existence, it helps if it utilises technology in the phone that the mobile web can’t, like the camera and location based features we’ve already discussed, but there are other good uses too.

Loyalty schemes are a particularly good feature for an app. Starbucks is one of the big successes in retail apps and this is mainly because of its app being essentially a loyalty card ‘on steroids’.

Retail apps are often used for customer retention and of loyalty schemes are a fantastic way to keep existing customers… hmm, I’m looking for another word here that isn’t loyal.

In conclusion…

Look at that, I found one more reason for building an app than I did against building one. Who could have possibly predicted it? Okay so I’m being slightly disingenuous, being as I deliberately wrote this article to challenge to my preconceived notions.

Here are some final thoughts. If you’re a retailer, please focus on your mobile website first, whether that be responsive, adaptive or an .m site. It’s best for everyone, your brand, your business and most importantly your user.

After then, by all means build an app. But only if it achieves one or all of the following…

  • Your app does something your mobile site can't do (barcode scanning, iBeacons)
  • If you have identified something from your particular userbase that says they are hungry for an app from you.
  • The app has something to entice users and keep them (rewards for loyalty, exclusive offers or discounts)
  • The customer experience on the app is excellent. 
  • The customer data from app users is valuable.
Christopher Ratcliff

Published 26 February, 2015 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Mike Thompson

Mike Thompson, Digital Manager at blu UK

Thanks Chris, really interesting and well written. I'm sure I'm not the only one to be taken aside and told "we need an app" before trying to stifle a "sigh". Don't get me wrong, an app hasn't wronged me in the past leading to some deep disregard for them, the ones I use I like. I'm a particular fan of the Barclays app, for me an example of where the mobile outdoes the desktop for experience.

Do you see the decline in app popularity declining?

over 2 years ago

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Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

For me brand recognition is one of the first questions that should be answered when considering whether to build an app. Ebay? Sure. Amazon? Certainly. Fred Smith's Ferret Emporium? Err... no.

Given that people only actively use a handful of apps per month on their phone, I think you have to be a big brand name to actually make it worthwhile, or it has to be a loyalty thing which really gives you something you can't get any other way, e.g. mobile banking, or gives you access to something without requiring an internet connection.

With the ever increasing ubiquity of responsive sites, all inclusive data packages, widespread wifi hotspots and ever improving 3g/4g connectivity, the argument for an app vs a responsive site (or mobile dedicated site) becomes ever weaker it seems. One advantage an app does have there is the brand icon is on your screen, right there saying, "Hey, remember me?", whereas it's completely buried in a mobile browser.

over 2 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

> mobile users spent 14% of their smartphone usage time on mobile web compared to 86% of that time in apps.

Surely this tells us nothing about apps vs not-apps: it just reflects the fact that people's most common task is the big Social sites, Facebook et al: and so using an App for those every-day-all-day usages is sensible for a user.

I'd be interested in the stat of how time is spent after removing the time on big social sites: I wonder if that '86% of apps time' would reverse to 86% non-apps usage for most users!

over 2 years ago

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Benjamin Zeidler, Director, Research & Analytics at Tenthwave Digital

Bravo, sir.

over 2 years ago

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Bigsands Page, Social Media Curator at Steel Band Hire

The Apps boat has already sailed, it's time for the next platform. We thought about having an App to cover all aspects of our service including venues and testimonials, but it's too late now. http://www.steelbandhire.com

over 2 years ago

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Chris Reed, Founder at Restless Communications

A good article, but it as others have indicated, it appears to ignore a key advantage of a web approach over an app approach. The web approach removes the considerable overhead of having to support legacy apps across multiple platforms. The web approach allows retailers resources to focus more effort delivering great experiences to the majority of their end users.

over 2 years ago

Neha Mallik

Neha Mallik, Content Producer at Mobstac

Excellent post Christopher! Quite surprisingly, I found the bit about 'Why Apps Suck' extremely convincing. The reasons mentioned by you resonate with the app related problems of today. A lot of retailers build an app because 'everyone else is'. There's no point simply replicating your mobile website. The app should offer value and and have unique features and obviously the next step is to market the app rigorously. Here's a nice post on how retailers can drive app downloads and build an audience: http://blog.beaconstac.com/building-an-audience-for-your-retail-app-top-4-tips/

over 2 years ago

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