May 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Rich, Unique and Profitable

Online retailers uncork their imagination to create novel ways to shop on the iPad.

Lead Photo

Shopping on Wine.com Inc.'s iPad app is quite unlike shopping its e-commerce site. A wine lover can swipe left to right and back again through thousands of wine labels, with the labels coming to the fore, then disappearing in back, presented like the album covers in iTunes. When a shopper stops on a label, a global map below zeroes in on the region where the winery is located.

Below the labels are four slot machine-like rolling bars, sometimes called thumb wheels, on which a shopper can select the type of wine she is looking for, the varietal, the region and/or the appellation. Then she presses the Go button and the app filters the product selection so that only the matches for her search are presented in the wine label feature.

It's not at all like shopping on Wine.com, and that's the point, says Rich Bergsund, CEO of the web-only retailer. Otherwise, why bother creating an iPad app, when a consumer can see the conventional web site well on a tablet computer?

"A goal was to make the app really cool so people would want to use it and have fun with it," Bergsund says. "With Wine.com our web site is a fairly utilitarian design, and with the app we wanted to experiment with a rich user interface that took advantage of the fun nature of the iPad."

To create that appealing user experience required Wine.com to reach outside its organization for specialized expertise, and to make a six-figure financial commitment.

The Wine.com app, unveiled in October 2010, has been downloaded 200,000 times, and nearly 20% of the retailer's total traffic—e-commerce site and iPad app combined—stems from iPads. And 10% of total sales come from the app and visits to the site from an iPad, up from 5% a year ago.

A mighty device

Wine.com is hardly the only retailer seeing the impact of tablet computers. 19% of U.S. adults own a tablet computer, and 36% of those in households with incomes of $75,000 or more, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Apple's iPad dominates the tablet market with a 73% market share, and tens of millions of users, according to Forrester Research Inc.

What's more, in the fourth quarter of 2011, 2% of total U.S. Internet traffic stemmed from iPads, up from 0.6% in Q4 2010, according to a study of 1 million unique web visitors to a dozen web sites in various industries by marketing and public relations firm Walker Sands Communications.

These iPad consumers love apps. The roughly 500,000 apps in Apple Inc.'s App Store have been downloaded tens of millions of times. Apps enable developers to use the technology within the iPad to create distinctive features and functions, such as those in the Wine.com app, to foster fun and offer new ways to shop.

Developing an app is a team effort, requiring input from multiple sources. Retailers have to look at design from a new angle, and be sure an app is as slick and enjoyable as possible. And they must optimize content they're using on their e-commerce sites for their iPad apps. Return on investment can quickly follow.

7% of total sales

Gilt Groupe Inc. can testify to that. The flash sale e-retailer of fashion apparel, jewelry and home décor unveiled its iPad app in April 2011. It has been downloaded more than 1 million times, the company reports. And 7% of the merchant's total sales now come from the iPad app. Gilt figured the device was a perfect fit with its target market of affluent consumers and provided a great way to highlight the merchant's rich design and eye-popping visuals.

"We wanted to have a clear, customized shopping experience that rivaled our site," says Jason John, senior director of marketing. "In fact, a lot of customers have provided feedback saying they like shopping on the app more than on the site. We also wanted a more magazine, editorial feel to the app to really engage the customer with the beautiful imagery and assets we have."

Gilt Groupe created a shopping cart for the app different from the one it features on its e-commerce site. With a touch of a finger a shopper can drag and drop products into the cart. And the cart craftily rises from the bottom of the screen to show its contents and other information.

"That came from playing around with the cool things you can do with an app to surprise and delight the audience," John says.

Wine.com's app also looks cool, and is quite functional. It all started with pen and paper. Bergsund and developer Marshall Monroe, president and chief creative officer at Marshall Monroe Magic, sat in Monroe's studio and later on a plane, doodling.

"The label flow, the thumb wheels and the geo-map were the building blocks," Bergsund says. "From there Marshall took those sketches and added the imagery and we kept tweaking it. Then it was integrating it with our database of wines so when we update content—which happens multiple times per day, new wines, new prices, new vintages—it all flows out to the iPad."

Bergsund says the app is a fun and easy way for consumers to discover new wines. "We've taken all the content available on Wine.com and boiled it up to the surface where it is very accessible and only one or two pages deep," he says. "On our web site you have to click several layers into it to get that content."

Watching consumers

When it comes to design, Gilt Groupe started with focus groups in its usability lab, and it continues to enhance the app as it learns more about consumers and their iPads.

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