Sad State of Retail Apps

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.

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at

21 thoughts on “Sad State of Retail Apps”

  1. “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.”

    Yet I doubt you would be willing to pay extra for that.

    1. Many pay a premium now for service. Think Nordstroms. But the ability for a salesperson to know who needs help and when can also make them more efficient.

  2. “Amazon continues to transform the shopping experience”

    Amazon continues to transform the *buying* experience. Fixed that for you.

    “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.”

    This is a misapprehension common to many journalists and tech bloggers. Online “shopping” is not the same thing as in-person shopping. Online shopping is goal directed. You have heard of a thing, you wish to buy it, you seek it out and obtain it. In person shopping is a mutant hybrid combination of goal-directed buying with another, utterly different activity: that of exploring the variety of things that exist that one can buy, checking them out, experiencing them, and, perhaps, if you like one, buying it. Exploratory shopping is much more sensually oriented: being able to see, touch, smell, taste, and hear the thing being explored is essential to the experience.

    I am sure that this common failure to understand the very nature of shopping, and thus to spend much time and effort completley misdiagnosing the woes of retail stores, has nothing whatsoever to do (sarcasm) with the fact that most tech bloggers are men, and that exploratory shopping tends to be looked down upon as a silly female activity.

    Online retail suffers from the fact that it cannot, by its very nature, ever properly encompass the exploratory aspect of shopping, especially its sensual dimension. In person retail suffers from brick and mortar corporations not being able to get their act together (still! after almost 20 years!) with respect to providing goal directed buyers with conveniences comparable to shopping on the Internet.

    The way brick and mortar companies tend to set up their online commerce as a separate division only exacerbates the problem, because then every online sale is a drain on the revenue of in person stores. Which means that delivering a satisfying online buying experience is at cross purposes with ensuring the health of the retail stores. Here in Canada there are multiple major nationwide retailers that have online “stores” where you cannot actually buy items and have them delivered to you: at best you can check availability of items at the store nearest you, create a “shopping list” of the things you want to buy there, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, reserve an item so it will be there when you go.

    This is not a software problem, or a retail dinosaur vs online mammal problem, it’s a corporate organizational problem. Satisfying goal-directed customers would involve crossing the streams of the (sometimes independently owned and always independently managed) retail division with the online division. It would entail increasing labour costs at the retail level (the store needs to have a team devoted to picking the items from online orders, either for in store pickup, or for delivery) to satisfy a revenue stream coming in at the online level, and (most difficult of all) it would entail a serious overhaul of corporate mindset, and of how the online and retail divisions are organized and accounted for on the books.

    1. Agreed.

      Re: ETA
      It’s also a bit of a competition problem: the supermarket chain where I shop IRL also has a nice website so I do my monthly Web stock up there. If it didn’t, I’d do it on some other site, I wouldn’t got to the IRL shop an extra 5-8 times per month to shuffle all that junk.

      Also, they deliver my orders from store stock with store-assigned personnel, so I’m not sure the Web part is competing vs the brick part, but rather synergizing and lowering the cost base ?

      Re: Organized vs Exploring
      Probably true overall, but there’s also exploring going on at websites, and organized going on IRL. Not sure the proportions. Probably depends on shop type too, though I’ve done Exploring at the supermarket sometimes ^^

      1. “so I’m not sure the Web part is competing vs the brick part,”

        Depends on the company. Some of them definitely seem to have the two set up as separate divisions that don’t talk to each other.

        “there’s also exploring going on at websites, and organized going on IRL.”

        a) I find it interesting that you traded “goal directed” (my term) for “organized.” Exploratory shopping can be very organized — if someone sets out to see what’s new and interesting in department a at store x and department b at store y, that’s exploratory but in a very organized fashion. That’s very much how I used to shop pre-internet. There were stores I’d know I wanted to visit, but only to see a particular section of the store, or only to look at the new flashy stuff in the window.

        b) before the internet, exploratory and goal directed were intertwined so much that it was hard to separate them. Hence my saying they’re a “mutant hybrid.” Still the case today with things like grocery shopping — your list might say “mushrooms, cabbage, apples,” but you end up going home with strawberries and carrots too, carrots because you forgot you needed them until you saw them in the store, strawberries because they were there and they looked so good they made you want to eat them. It was obviously in the store’s interest to force you to explore, because that increased their sales… but at the same time, exploring was a vital component of figuring out what things you’d forgotten you needed, and what things you didn’t know existed but which you definitely wanted.

        The two activities were deeply intertwined, with mutually reinforcing synergies — you go looking for X, and on the way discover a new thing that you know you must have. You tell your friend about the new thing, and then they go looking for it, and on the way discover yet another new thing, which they tell you about in turn, etc.

        It’s *possible* to explore online, by looking at lists of “new and noteworthy” products, for example, but it takes effort and is not as easy or as natural as in-person exploration. Online is all about text labels and tiny pictures — 4/5 of the sensory experience of in person shopping is missing. Exploratory shopping is a natural outgrowth of the nature of physical shopping, whereas to make it possible at all online takes serious effort on the part of the coders and web designers, or else requires you to go find a curation site (review site, discussion forum, chat room, etc) which will help you discover things you didn’t know about but might want to get.

        Most online stores are built by men, who (in North America at least) tend not to enjoy exploratory shopping and thus tend to forget about its importance. So, most internet stores are definitely not set up to facilitate exploratory shopping – they’re organized around streamlining the goal-directed experience. Amazon’s “other people who looked at this also looked at that” function is an attempt to replace the exploratory discovery aspect of in person shopping, but the fact that online buying has not been able to grow beyond a small fraction of all retail suggests that such efforts don’t work nearly as well as the in-person experience.

        1. I seem to remember that “organized shopper” (or its French equivalent) was what we used way back before the Internet when I was studying Business. That’s probably a Jack Donaghy-level obsolete wording.

          I’m happy with how websites are because I’m analytical, but I’m surprised at how *all* websites are designed for me. Except Apple’s, which I duly hate with its huge pictures and endless fluff, but I understand how that caters to a demo that’s probably bigger than mine… I’m really surprised so few websites follow that route, or ven that websites don’t offer a choice. Designed by techies for techies.

      2. Argh, typed a long reply and forgot about one of the key points I wanted to make.

        Pre internet: apart from those shoppers who treated shopping as a leisure time entertainment (stereotypically young women – cf movies like Clueless, but like all stereotypes this is incorrect, I used to enjoy exploratory shopping a great deal), most people *set out* to do goal directed shopping, and only incidentally ended up exploring as they did so. And for a certain demographic, avoiding exploration became a goal in itself – cf the (stereotypically male) attitude towards shopping that treats the store or mall as an enemy against whom they are mounting a military operation, where they are going to “go in, grab [the stuff, the thing, the list], and get out” — this is the mentality needed to resist the highly sophisticated technologies the store deploys to lure you into exploring.

        Post-internet: goal directed shopping can mostly be accomplished online, with less time and less effort expended. The experience of online shopping is a bleeding amputated stump, missing the entire exploratory component, but since in-person shopping takes so much time and energy, why go unless you explicitly want to explore? Which is why bricks & mortar retail is suffering far more than you’d expect: because people aren’t realizing what they’re missing (or they mistake it for the convenience of “not having to wait for delivery”, as this article does), so they aren’t going to the stores anymore.

        As an equal opportunity goal shopper and exploration shopper, I very much prefer in person to online for most things, specifically because of the fun of discovering new things, as well as the social interaction provided by in person shopping. I suspect many people feel the same way, and it is only lack of time (gee, thanks capitalism) that channels so many of us into abandoning retail for online stores.

    2. “Online “shopping” is not the same thing as in-person shopping. Online shopping is goal directed. Exploratory shopping is much more sensually oriented: being able to see, touch, smell, taste, and hear the thing being explored is essential to the experience.”

      Online shopping at Amazon can be as exploratory as in-person shopping. You may not be able to touch and handle the merchandise, but you can peruse, research, read reviews and even see what’s new.

  3. Let 90% of retail stores die. In most cases, bricks offer no advantage to me.
    I prefer online.
    Research (to death in may cases as I am a nerd) the choices and then click to buy.
    I don’t need instant gratification.

    1. Man. That was deep.

      You’ve really thought about this from every angle, haven’t you?

      Thanks for sharing.

    2. You’re talking about ONE PERSON, and on that basis condemning 90% of all retail stores to death.

      Ever look outside the mirror, davebarnes?

  4. I understand the issues, yet somehow your article ends up feeling like you want the website experience in a brick and mortar shop.
    1- most brick and mortar shoppers don’t want that, so it may be not only an unproductive investment, but even a counterproductive one. I’m fairly sure seniors would feel out of place at an iZombie supermarket ?
    2- between the people who don’t want iShopping, the ones who don’t want tracking, the ones who can’t do it (because kids to watch over or whatnot)… how many IT analyst customers does it take to make the investment worthwhile ?
    3- you’ll need a 1:1 shopper : helper ratio if a personal assistant is a push of a button away

    1. “your article ends up feeling like you want the website experience in a brick and mortar shop.”

      Indeed. It’s almost as if he doesn’t realize the nature of the benefits of online retail (hint, it’s not convenience). Then again, if this is the kind of advice that most retail companies are getting, no wonder they’re flailing cluelessly.

      However, there are things about the online experience that brick and mortar could really use. Such as:

      a) Have a website where you can shop, and the stuff you put in your cart and buy gets picked and set aside for you at your local store, so within an hour or so of buying it online, you can come pick up your entire order, bagged and ready to go at the pick-up entrance, so you don’t need to spend any time in the store if you don’t want to, and yet you don’t have to wait for UPS to deliver the package from the webstore either. The cost of paying a clerk to gather & bag your items would almost always be lower than the postage costs of paying to have them shipped from an online store (at least here in canada), so offering this service shouldn’t hurt the store’s bottom line much at all.

      b) have an app that lets you scan the barcode of a thing in the store, and at the tap of a button, that thing is bought and paid for and will be delivered to your home that evening or the next day at a time of your choosing. Again, you don’t have to wait for UPS, but you also get to experience the thing you’re buying before you buy it. This kind of thing would do a great deal to counteract the “showroom at the store, then buy from Amazon” syndrome.

      The only reason I can think of as to why stores aren’t doing these kinds of things is that they are suffering from corporate organizations that have placed a wall between the online division and the retail division.

  5. I go to shops to different things:
    1) repeat buying stuff that I know and need (I care about sales and discounts)
    2) comparing products that I may want to buy (detailed product info would be helpful)
    3) shopping as entertainment and for discovery of new products (you may also be interested in suggestions could be helpful)

    Apps could improve various aspects of the shopping experience, but reality is that they are usually poorly conceived, designed and maintained (e.g. a PDF catalog in an app is really not useful). As note in the article, most apps, are really as waste of effort, which is a shame because I’m convinced that there is a way of doing it right.

  6. Target’s entire online interface is a sad state of affairs. The website is a mess. It is hard to tell if their recent woes are a cause or effect of that. No doubt related regardless.

    But people still enjoy physical shopping. And ironically that is also being aided by the internet, even as individual examples of poor buying experience through app interfaces are numerous. I have found a number of smaller shops through the internet that I would likely have never considered otherwise. And they have no app. So to me, the question to be answered is really, what is the purpose of the app?

    The bigger retailers are the ones who seem to be suffering at the hands of Amazon, I think. I think it gets to purpose. Let’s face it, there is a difference between purpose of buying and purpose of shopping, as several have already noted. The larger stores seem to have leveraged the notion of buying, while it is the smaller stores who seem to leverage shopping. And Amazon has definitely shown itself the king of “buying”.

    What I mean is, a smaller shop has a more local, community relevance vs larger stores. Ease of _buying_ will always have a place, but I do think at some point everyone starts to concern themselves with their neighbor. And what a great place to interact with your neighbor than their shop? Amazon would do well to recognize that, especially with regard to local taxes. For all the rhetoric surrounding taxes, that is a very vital way we contribute to our community.

    In this day and age, the larger something becomes, the smaller it needs to be.


  7. I’m surprised they’re not using apps to do personalized couponing and flash sales. I hate those, retailers seem to love them… but handing out semi-personnalized coupons at the checkout seems very sub-optimal because there’s no way I’m hanging on to them till next time.
    I’m surprised there’s not an app for that. Come to thing of it, I’m surprised to gizmo I use to do my self-checkout as I pile thing up in my bags doesn’t do that.

  8. Over Thanksgiving I went into a Target in Austin that I had never been into before. I was armed with a list in Notes on my iPhone. Then I realized that the Target app would allow me to create a list and show me where in the store the item was!
    This really seemed like it was really going to be useful. What? The aisles in the grocery section aren’t actually numbered? Where the heck is aisle W34? Seriously? I know this is Texas but the store doesn’t have 816 (23 x 34) aisles in it.
    Unfortunately, the Target app couldn’t figure out my atrocious spelling. Even looking for tomato paste failed. I did use the app to find the salsas.
    I tried pasting the entire, well-formatted list from Notes into the Target search bar, but it put everything on one line, so I had to delete the other 20 items over and over. Way too much trouble. Maybe if I had already created the list in the Target app instead of trying to paste words into it from Notes, it would have worked better.
    The app required you to type in the item, search for it, then add it to your list. That’s really not how I create a shopping list.
    At least they had the idea just not the execution for the app.
    The complaint about WiFi is perfect. There are several stores in the Portland area that are such perfect Faraday cages that it’s impossible to get AT&T signal. Maybe the WiFi signal is good enough if you shop alone, but none of them have decent signal unless you are close to the wall where the Google WiFi from Starbucks bleeds through.

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