Appy shopper: the mobile apps that are changing the way we shop
23rd Feb 2014 | 12:01
The best deals and tailored shopfronts are making apps the smart choice for shoppers
"If a woman sees her friend wearing a dress she must have, there is no longer a cool-off period during which the purchase can be reconsidered," says Dominik Mazur, CEO of Image Searcher, co-developer of the CamFind app for iPhone and Android.
"She can take a picture of it, have it up on screen within seconds and then instantly order through her favourite retailer."
A visual search engine that allows users to snap anything they see and choose where to buy for the best price, CamFind is just one of a new generation of mobile apps that pounce on our impulses, aspirations and temporarily lowered inhibitions in order to liberate us of our income.
While Britain's high street stores struggle to emerge from an apparently never-ending slump, the likes of Wanelo, Fancy, Etsy, eBay and Amazon are constantly working on new tools designed to ensure everything we've ever wanted (and plenty of stuff we didn't know we wanted) sits front and centre on those conjoined twins we've come to call smartphones.
"We are all visual beings, so searching visually makes the most sense in my opinion and the trend will only grow," says Mazur, whose app has already processed 12m image searches in six months.
The multi-talented CamFind, (think of it as a far superior and more useful version of Google Goggles) racked up a million downloads on iOS prior to its recent Android launch. You can snap a cup of coffee and it'll tell you where you can get a mid-morning Java thanks to Yelp integration, or a movie poster to get a screen time. There's also a barcode scanner for direct price comparisons, but that's old hat in this age.
Image search apps like CamFind have been so successful that Amazon has just adopted its own interpretation. Called 'Flow', the feature uses augmented reality to scan objects and text. If a match is spotted within the inventory, the Amazon listing will appear. The idea is to give consumers an opportunity to get a better price. The execution isn't quite there yet, but the potential is.
It's one of a series of ploys from the world's biggest etailer to ensure that even when the product is in the user's hand, they'll choose to buy it online. Free next-day delivery is already in place through Prime (two days in the US), and next it wants to send us items in half an hour via drones. After that it'll start sending us items we haven't even ordered yet thanks to predictive marketing data. If it was up and running now in rain-soaked Britain, we'd all be getting new wellies in the mail.
However, Amazon and CamFind's current play still relies completely on the user already knowing what they want. Other apps are taking every opportunity to show us what we don't know we want.
"There's a inspirational and aspirational aspect to shopping now," says Paul Rouke, founder of PRWD, a Manchester-based ecommerce agency specialising in 'conversion rate optimisation,' which turns browsing into buys for the likes of TopShop, Vans, The North Face. (http://www.prwd.co.uk/)
"Visitors don't have any particular items in mind, but are very open minded. They're saying, 'I've got a bit of money to spend, show me what you've got, inspire me'."
Want, Need, Love
One app that captures the very essence of smartphone shopping is Wanelo (that's Want, Need, Love, for those keeping score at home).
Part social network, part 'window shopping on steroids,' it is one of the most popular apps on iOS and Android, and a chart-topper on both platforms.
Users follow their favourite stores, brands, influencers and friends to customise a shopping experience in which 9.5m products from over 200,000 stores are purchasable from within the app. It has a constant-scroll feed of interesting items, making it the perfect app for loafing at home or on the train.
"People are the best shortcuts we have in terms of finding things that are most relevant to us," says founder and CEO Deena Varshavskaya.
"Twitter is a really wonderful example of this, it has organised all of the world's news around people. Depending on which accounts you follow, you can create your own personalised feed of news through people.
"What we do at Wanelo runs parallel to that. You follow stores and users, creating a custom feed and filtering down what's suitable and relevant to for you."
The app centres on "organising shopping around people," rather than the other way around. With this app, and others like Fancy and Etsy, users can always be shopping, rather than having to make a trip into town.
Meanwhile, on the High Street
But what do these mobile experiences, which have the advantage of reams of data on user habits, do for the poor old High Street, still focused on intent rather than discovery? Well, the prognosis might not be as severe as it appears on the surface.
"We know that we have a really big impact. Our users have spent so much time on our app browsing products that by the time they come into the store, they already know the inventory," said Varshavskaya, who hopes to eventually connect the Wanolo app with physical retailers.
"They might come in looking for a particular item so they can try it on, or just buy it directly. They're now coming into the stores with a lot of knowledge. I think it is making a significant impact in a way that retailers are not yet aware."
Indeed, where there is extra pressure to stay relevant and attractive to shoppers in the mobile age, there is also opportunity.
Natural retail selection
While online giants such as Amazon may have played a role in the demise of smaller, physical retailers, the best ones will adapt and thrive, according to Chris Parry, Senior Lecturer in the Accounting and Finance department at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
"Shopping apps aren't a way to kill the High Street, they're advantageous to the High Street, providing they're managed properly," he told us.
"It's not the 1960s. The High Street must evolve and use these apps as an opportunity. If a small high street store in South Wales is able to sell to someone in South Florida then that's excellent. There's a way to maintain the individuality and links with the local community, while spreading the net wider."
Siberian-born Varshavskaya puts it in plainer terms: "They have no choice, but to adapt."
Indeed, the most successful retailers are finding ways to marry the two worlds. Some are offering in-store pickup within 30 minutes for items purchased online, and price-matching schemes that can keep price comparison apps that ensure we always get the best deal at bay.
"The holy grail for the most advanced price comparison apps is never having to overpay for anything," says CamFind's Mazur.
"This is helping a transfer of power to the customer and I'm all for it," adds Parry.
When it comes down to brass tacks, mobile-savvy shoppers aren't mourning the demise of the bricks-and-mortar High Street. Instead, they're voting with their fingers and thumbs on apps and optimised websites. We're more focused on what we want, and more open to what we might want than ever before.
Those retailers who can react to the change will survive, flourish and remain part of our lives. Those who don't? Well, we're sorry for their loss. May they rest in peace.