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The Relevance of Native Apps for Retailers

February 10, 2011

This post is co-written by Gary Lombardo and Matt Caroll, President of Ignition Commerce.

When launching or improving a mobile web site, many retailers often neglect to include native applications as part of their overall mobile strategy.  While mobile commerce starts with the mobile web, native applications provide an important source of revenue and opportunity to extend the brand.  As a result, online retailers should consider native applications as part of any effective mobile strategy.

Why Native Applications are Relevant for Retailers

Native applications will play an important role in projected growth of the mobile channel for the foreseeable future.  Some of the reasons include:

1. Native applications are faster.   Speed is an important consideration for mobile shoppers despite 3G connections that remain slow in some areas.  When downloaded to a mobile device, native applications contain most of the components necessary to render the UI on the handset.  As a result, less information needs to be sent from the server during the shopping session, providing consumers with a much faster shopping experience in the process.

2.  Mobile web does not offer full native functionality.  As discussed in previous posts, the functional gap between the mobile web and native applications is closing, as evident by new mobile web functionality such as bar-code scanning capabilities, however; mobile web currently does not offer the same level of functionality provided by native applications. Until technology progresses and the gap closes completely, functionality specific to native applications, such as interacting with the device video/camera capabilities, geo-positioning and highly interactive UI components, will continue to make native applications extremely relevant element of any mobile strategy over the next few years.

3.  Native applications are immensely popular.   Beyond being an integral part American and European culture, the use of mobile devices in developing economies (just look at the recent role mobile devices have played in the uprisings in the Middle East) provides further evidence of the importance of mobile technology across the globe.   Termed by Pew Internet as “apps culture”, the embrace of mobile devices has resulted in the installation of native applications by 35% of adults.  The importance of native applications is further evidenced by the sheer number of downloads experienced by Apple since the release of the AppStore in 2008 with over 10 Billion downloads and growing. While Android has seen lower growth rates, it also continues to post impressive numbers.  According to Gartner Research, the popularity of applications shows no sign of slowing down with 17.2 Billion applications expected to be downloaded in 2011 which represents a 117% increase over the 8.2 Billion downloaded in 2010.  Given current and projected market penetration rates, online retailers should consider a mobile strategy that includes native applications.

4Native applications provide unprecedented opportunities to build brand awareness. The constant presence of a retailer’s native application icon on a consumer’s mobile device builds brand awareness while driving sales. Additionally, online retailers who maintain iPhone and Android native applications are typically viewed by consumers to be of a higher stature, providing lift to a retailer’s brand in the marketplace. Whether in iPhone, Android or both, the presence of native applications presents an online retailer in a favorable light and is perceived by consumers to be good thing.

5. Consumers prefer mobile optimized experiences, whether on the moible web or with native apps.When a site is not optimized for mobile commerce, whether through mobile Web or native applications, online retailers will sacrifice an estimated 5 to 10% of their annual revenue, as consumers using mobile devices will struggle to shop their site. Traditional PC-optimized websites do not effectively translate to mobile devices, jeopardizing revenue and consumers in the process.  With respects to consumer preferences related to mobile web vs. native applications, according to a recent survey by Adobe, native applications are preferred by mobile shoppers over mobile optimized websites among iPhone users.  Android users prefer native applications vs. mobile web optimized sites almost equally.  Based on the findings contained in this study, online retailers must utilize native applications to meet the needs of today’s mobile consumers.

Ensuring that Native Applications Are Relevant

While native applications are an undeniably important element of online shopping, they must provide a “well-rounded” shopping experience to be relevant and effective.  Online retailers must provide a tightly integrated shopping experience that includes the “core” functionality and impactful user experience typically found in “best of breed” ecommerce sites. Additionally, native applications should leverage the unique capabilities of the device. While these elements will be expressed differently from retailer to retailer, the following provides general guidelines for achieving a well-rounded shopping experience:

1.      Include “core” capabilities in native applications.  As mobile devices have become increasingly functional, customers utilizing mobile commerce applications have begun to expect the same capabilities available in a best-in-class Web-based shopping experience.  In an effort to provide consumers with mobile functionality that is both familiar and intuitive, promoting ease of use in the process, native applications need to offer the following “core” features:

  • Home to Category to Sub-Category to Product Detail Navigation
  • Cross Sells, Alternative Views, and Product Zoom at the Product Detail Level
  • Account Creation & Modification of an Existing Account
  • Search
  • Quick Checkout
  • Coupon Redemption
  • Save & Modify Addresses & Methods of Payment
  • Checkout as Registered, New, or Anonymous User

2. Provide a tightly integrated shopping experience. For a multi-channel merchant, the ability to present consumers with a consistent and integrated shopping experience, regardless of channel, is critical.  In an effort to provide their customers with a unified shopping experience, native applications must be tightly integrated with the eCommerce platform and allow consumers to access account information, wish lists, order history and cart contents from either a PC or handheld device.  When items are added to a cart on the eCommerce site, they must be immediately visible via handheld. Conversely, an account created on a handheld must be accessible through the ecommerce site.

3. Include functionality that takes advantage of the device’s unprecedented capabilities.  Native applications need to offer functionality that allows online retailers to take advantage of the unique capabilities provided by mobile devices.  For example, utilizing the geolocation services that are innate to the handheld devices, online retailers can provide consumers with turn by-turn directions, based on their current location, to their closest physical store. This unique feature allows consumers to quickly locate the nearest store location without even knowing their current address, driving in-store sales in the process.

Have a look at the demo below to get a sense of what a well-rounded, relevant native shopping app should look like.

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