4 Strategies to Build Great Mobile Shopping Experiences Through Apps

Over the past two months we have conducted a survey of native mobile shopping apps (iOS and Android) created by major retail brands to get a better understanding of what’s happening in the retail app marketplace. In particular, we aimed to spot common cross-platform app design trends and to build a better picture of what makes for a truly great app experience.

Starting with the top third in the Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide, we selected those brands most likely to have a consumer-facing native app (examples: American Eagle, Amazon, REI, Sephora).

With initial results in hand, we saw a need for more data, so we supplemented our list with a few dozen subjectively well-designed apps. We chose non-IR500 shopping apps that one could reasonably point to as great examples of what mobile commerce apps can be (examples: JackThreads, Frank & Oak, Urban Outfitters, Marks & Spencer).

Disclaimer: we focused our survey on apps available to the Canadian market; we didn’t observe any significant regional differences, but if surveyed against the larger US market some of our findings may shift slightly.

We analyzed core shopping flows, cart functions, UI conventions, and platform-specific features of over 100 major retailers. As well as common interface patterns, functionality, trends, and marketplace reaction. Here’s what we found.


Of the retailers we surveyed, 68% had invested in an app of some form. 65% had a native iOS app, while only 38% had an Android app.

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Overwhelmingly, these apps are built to deliver the core shopping experience, with significant overlap in functionality between the app and the retailer’s mobile website. A handful of retailers had created functional apps like calendars, recipes, or games in addition to (or instead of) a shopping app, but these were not nearly as common.

When retailers created functionality unique to their app, they often added native device APIs previously unavailable to mobile web. For instance accessing a phone’s contacts or using its camera to enable a QR code reader function was not possible to do from a browser until recently.

Amongst shopping apps, we found that 56% of retailers have an iOS app of some kind, with 30% offering both iPad and iPhone, 21% offering only an iPhone app, and 5% offering iPad apps only.

Comparing iPhone to Android is even more pronounced. 35% of retailers offer apps for both platforms, 14% offer only an iPhone app, and a mere 1% offer only an Android app. (Note: we did not survey Android tablet apps.)

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We sometimes encountered third party apps in both iOS and Android stores when a retailer had not built their own. Third party apps appear to mainly exist for the sake of enriching the developer by running ads on top of the mobile website, with no extra value delivered to the user.


There are a few public-facing metrics that can give us a sense of how end users are engaging with the apps we surveyed.

On the iOS side, ratings are the only engagement metrics we have. It appears that major international retailers can expect a few hundred ratings in the App Store, and customers will rate an app based on their direct experience using it, and not the overall brand.

On the Android side however, we see a very different picture with almost 100 times the number of ratings for an app, compared to its equivalent in the iOS App Store. We’re also presented with the number of downloads each app has received, which appears to be milestone-based (10k, 50k, 100k, 500k, 1M, etc.). It’s unclear if there’s anything we can learn from this, other than relative popularity of the retailer. Major international brands can expect 1M – 10M downloads.

User ratings are also split by platform. On the iOS side, user happiness appears to be truly app-dependent, with an average score of 3 out of 5. Highly-rated apps meet or exceed user expectations. Low ratings indicate expected functionality is missing or broken. (The feedback we surveyed applies to all versions of the app to minimize any spike in negative feedback due to temporarily broken builds.)

Android appears to enjoy much higher user satisfaction however, with an average rating of 4 out of 5. Even more surprising, those third party apps that exist solely to make money off advertising are not rated poorly either.

User reviews offer clear communication from direct customers about their expectations. They complain loudly when an app is broken, is missing functionality, or when it hasn’t integrated with services they expect. This is a prime channel for prioritizing future app improvements.

Our Conclusions

There are some evident app development strategies we can take from these findings:

1. Build for iPhone first.

Retailers are more likely create a phone app before a tablet app, and they are more likely to create an iOS app before an Android app. When choosing to build just a single app, the common choice is building for the iPhone first, then expanding to other options.

2. Build a great app experience, particularly for iPhone.

It appears that iOS users are quicker to voice dissatisfaction with their app experience. With proportionately less ratings in the iOS store, it’s more important that the ones provided are generally positive. A consistently great user experience is the best way to ensure a good response.

3. Don’t ignore Android.

It’s important for brands to have their own app in the Google Play Store. The more permissive submission process on the Android platform allows scammy, low-utility third party apps to exist for major brands. Without an official presence, it’s easy for a consumer to assume these apps came from the retailer, which could ultimately be damaging to the brand.

4. The basic shopping experience matters.

Retailers are most often creating app experiences that closely replicate the shopping experience they’ve previously built for their mobile websites. When attempting to improve the mobile shopping experience, apps typically provide extra functionality or UI improvements that supplement the core shopping experience, or provide native features in the app that are unavailable to the mobile website.

If you’re interested in the more technical side of apps, check out this blog post on the core user experience flows of mobile shopping apps.

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