Sad State of Retail Apps

on December 11, 2015

I was having coffee with a friend this past Saturday morning when I noticed his leather wallet case on his iPhone 6 Plus. I googled the brand a few hours later, found the $27 case on Amazon, and purchased it. That same evening, the doorbell rang and an Amazon driver handed me the item.

This experience has been repeated by millions of people over the past few weeks. Amazon continues to transform the shopping experience, much in the way Polaroid transformed the photo experience, eliminating the need to wait. The impact Amazon is having clearly has to be a big concern to retailers.

A few years back, we heard lots of ideas about how retailers could use technology to improve their shopping experience. There was talk of in-store mapping, location technology, and even face recognition software. Analysts described how this would allow physical stores to better compete with online shopping, to improve the experience, make it more convenient, and even fun. There was talk of walking into a store with your phone and being recognized, suggesting items you might be interested in buying, based on previous purchases, and guiding you through the store, all done with a mobile app.

So how is all this going? Based on my survey of several major retailers, not very well. If there is technology being developed in this area, it certainly wasn’t visible in any of these stores where I shop. There were a few nuggets of ideas, but nothing that showed much imagination.

In my survey, I downloaded the mobile apps from Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Sephora, Nordstrom’s, and Bloomingdales, and signed up with each of them. I used each app for at least a week and visited all of the stores to see how the apps enhanced my shopping experience.

Sadly, the results were disappointing. First, the apps were primarily just mobile versions of the websites with a focus on online shopping from a phone. Few were designed for use in the physical stores. In fact, none of the retailers even promoted the mobile apps in their stores. It seemed the physical stores and the online entities were entirely different operations.

Most provided online product search, reviews, ordering, and the option to pick up merchandise at a store or shipped to home. Most had the ability to create shopping lists and provide a list of store locations.

But none of the apps came close to the potential of what a mobile app could do to entice you into their stores. While most of the stores had public WiFi, none of the stores reached out to me as a customer via the app proactively, even when connected. None identified I was in the store, nor told me about or directed me to sales in progress. And none allowed me to do self-checkout using the app in the way the Apple stores allow.

I would have loved to see a help function where I could press a button on the app and have a salesperson come to me. I would have liked to have been able to search for an item and have the app direct me to the location of the product in the store. I’d love an app that allowed a sales person to direct me by name and let me know about a new product my past purchases showed I might like.

I can understand why some shoppers might want to maintain their privacy and not be recognized while shopping, but I know there are many shoppers that would opt-in to make their store visit more useful with much more thoughtful interaction compared to impersonal online shopping.

While most of the apps seemed to emulate one another, the quality of execution varied widely. Those from Wal-Mart, Sephora, and Kohl’s were the best, while the Target app was the worst of the group with its confusing interface split into several different apps.

The most technically advanced features in these apps were barcode scanners you can use in the store to learn more about a product or check a price. Wal-Mart had a clever feature that allowed you to scan your receipt using its mobile app and it would compare the prices you paid with neighboring merchants and match any lower prices. Sephora allowed a shopper to use their own image to learn how to apply makeup using its app.

However, with Amazon’s same day delivery service being expanded, retail stores will need to work much harder to get you to pay them a visit. Their big advantage once was that you get the product the same day, but even that advantage is disappearing.