April 2, 2014, 1:17 PM

Grabbing app glory

Retailers and developers who've nabbed the high-profile Featured App or Best New App spots in Apple's App Store offer tips on how to appeal to Apple's tastemakers.

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How can a retailer know for sure that the app it's building will pass Apple Inc.'s approval process and be available for download in the App Store? How can a retailer gauge if its app is in line with what Apple likes to see, and thus earn Featured App or Best New App placement in the Apple App store? It's not like an e-retailer's leaders and information technology staff members can hop on a plane, fly out to Cupertino, Calif., knock on Apple's door and ask Apple's crack team of developers what they think of a design in development.

Well, actually, that's exactly what executives at e-retailer Threadless.com did. Twice.

Having access to Apple insiders is one of the perks of working with an outside developer with extensive app–building experience, in this case, Prolific Interactive, says Jake Nickell, founder and CEO at Threadless.com, an apparel, accessories and art e-retailer that offers an iPhone shopping app, with a second iPhone app focusing on custom-designed T-shirts on the way. Shoppers on mobile devices account for 28% of Threadless.com's traffic (64% of that mobile traffic stems from Apple devices) and 20% of its sales.

Threadless.com had a rough start with apps. It pulled the plug on its first iPhone app after just six months in 2012. All Nickell will say about that app is the e–retailer "was not proud of it." This time around, the merchant was especially sensitive to getting things right.

And it did. After making some design changes suggested by Apple in the Cupertino meetings, changes that brought the Threadless.com app more in line with the clean Apple iOS 7 aesthetic (such as killing tabs with graphics in favor of tabs with colors), not only did Apple speedily approve the app, it named it a Best New App in the Lifestyle category, where shopping apps reside.

The first week the app appeared in the App Store last month, Threadless.com promotions to its customers drove downloads. Apple elevated it to a Best New App slot in its second week, and that drove what Nickell describes as an "impressive" jump in downloads, new customers and positive user reviews during the two weeks it was featured as a Best New App. "We are still featured today and are still seeing the benefits of being one of the Best New Apps, and consequently are still in the midst of gathering data on results," he adds.

Having Apple honor an app with a Featured App or Best New App slot boosts downloads and credibility and attracts new customers to a brand; further, the high profile can boost positive user reviews, a key to survival in the App Store, retailers and developers say. But Apple only tells companies, via the Apple iOS Dev Center at Developer.Apple.com, what to do and what not to do to gain its approval to be included in the store. Apple does not tell companies how to stand out and gain a featured placement. In fact, it doesn't even tell businesses that do get featured why they were picked. (Nor would Apple comment for this story.)

But retailers and developers whose work has been rewarded with featured positions offer clues to other retailers seeking Apple's recognition, and the subsequent boosts the high profile brings. They stress that apps must function perfectly, and that apps should complement the style of Apple's iOS 7 mobile operating system design, which last year drastically altered the look and feel of computing on Apple's mobile devices. Having a unique business model or innovative mobile tool doesn't hurt, either.

Apps are increasingly important because consumers are moving much of their web activities from desktop computers to tablets and smartphones. In fact, fully one-third of visitors to the most heavily trafficked online retailers only visit the merchants on mobile devices, according to web and mobile measurement firm comScore Inc. What's more, 80% of the time mobile shoppers spend with top retailers occurs in an app, while only 20% occurs on a mobile web site, comScore says. Consumers increasingly are turning to apps over the web, on smartphones and tablets, and this trend may require more retailers to consider building apps, mobile experts say.

Discovery has always been key to apps. Consumers have to be able to find an app to use it, and that's assuming they even know an app exists. There are around 1 million apps in Apple's App Store, so when Apple likes an app enough to place it on the top of the heap in a Featured App slot, where it typically remains for a week or two, or near the top in a Best New Apps slot, which can last weeks or more, it can be a dream come true for the app maker.

"Apple tends to showcase high-functioning, well-designed apps, and we were excited to have been categorized in that way," says Nickell of Threadless.com. "Our app has been successful with Apple and consumers because we had a clear understanding of the end user's expectations and executed the design to meet those expectations. Partnering with the right development team also is imperative. Our partners at Prolific Interactive have had other successes in the App Store, and together we kept the end user in mind and stayed true to our brand [in] optimizing the experience for mobile."

Bond Gifts launched last year as a mobile-only retailer—it only sold via an iPhone app (it now has an e-commerce site). It has an unusual business model: It targets busy urban executives like salespeople who need to send a nice gift to colleagues, partners or clients. A key feature enables users to send a handwritten note on fancy stationary in a wax-sealed envelope from their phones. Shortly after Bond Gifts' debut in the App Store last year, Apple put the retail app in the Featured App position for a week. The app's different model and then mobile-only approach likely caught the eyes of Apple's tastemakers, says Sonny Caberwal, CEO and co-founder of Bond Gifts.

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