Online retailers uncork their imagination to create novel ways to shop on the iPad.
Bill Siwicki , Managing Editor, Mobile Commerce
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."
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.
"We're constantly trying new ways to do two things," John says. "First, to expose the user to various sales so they have a clear understanding of the breadth we offer. Second, to display products in a way that is visually appealing and not cluttered. We're constantly trying different templates and different variations to convey both of those messages at the same time. We take advantage of the crispness with which the iPad allows you to display images, while making it very easy to shop."
Gilt's extensive use of high-resolution images could come at a cost: slow speeds. But the merchant uses the caching functionality of an app and tweaks the resolution imagery to overcome this hurdle.
"You have to play with the resolution, you have to weigh how heavy the app is based on all the images that have to load," John says. "We have expertise in-house on the visual side and on the speed and optimization side, and they come together."
Wine.com faces the same speed hurdle and uses similar techniques to ensure rich visuals and speedy performance.
"The way we cache images is getting into the nuts and bolts of how the device handles graphics, and every millisecond counts," Monroe says. "The first thing was the images don't exist in the app when you first get it. There's a physical limit to how big an app can be. When you start, it loads the app with the initial images and then caches images a user views on the device. So the app gets faster every time you use it."
The app team
A variety of people must come together to get the right design, features and speed into an iPad app. It's a team effort that goes beyond the app developers.
Gilt Groupe created a mobile commerce department that includes five engineers, a product lead, a front-end user experience lead, a creative executive and a mobile marketing executive.
"Everyone has a different view, but all are very excited about doing something new and unique," John says. "The team does ongoing usability studies to understand user needs and analyze data to see where customers are going and what categories they're buying from, to help with app navigation and to design the look and feel to match customer needs."
The team requires little help on the back end as the iPad app uses all of the same systems as the e-commerce site, John adds.
At Wine.com, the software team integrated the app with the site's underlying e-commerce systems. On the front end, marketing and merchandising teams were heavily involved.
"The merchandising team works with wineries; the content on the iPad app comes from our merchandisers," Bergsund explains. "Marketing helps when we run a sale on the iPad. We run iPad-exclusive sales on weekends when iPad users can be 20% of our sales. People are pulling out the iPad and sitting on the couch, and marketing tries to match our promotions up with their behavior."
Who builds it?
As is the case with any technology, building an iPad app can be done in-house or with an outside developer. Gilt Groupe chose to keep the iPad app project in-house.
"We definitely prefer building everything internally at Gilt to keep control and consistency of the brand and maintain the knowledge portion because we do understand that mobile—smartphones and tablets—is a big part of our business moving forward," John says. "We wanted to invest internally, betting on that being a big part of the business."
Wine.com employed developer Marshall Monroe Magic, which brought extra resources and capabilities.
"Marshall has a background in Disney theme park design, and we wanted some of that magic combined with the expertise we have in wine and commerce," Bergsund says.
Innovators in the space
Ultimately the magic of a rich iPad app has to pay for itself. It cost Wine.com more than $100,000 to create its iPad app. Bergsund says the merchant is past the break-even point on the app.
"Before the revenue is there you have to consider the traffic and engagement you are doing with your customers and the impact on your brand," he adds. "Even if there is no revenue there is still a lot of value as long as people are using it; it positions us and our wineries and our brands in a great spot as innovators in the space."
Bergsund says the iPad app generated a pleasant surprise: Customers started shopping in new ways.
"Because the iPad is a mobile device, it has extended the days of the week and the hours of the day people are buying wine through us," he says. "The weekend matters a lot more right now, the commuting hours are important. It's nice."
Gilt Groupe spent more than $10,000 to build its app. It says the app has paid for itself, as today 7% of the merchant's total revenue comes from the app.
"The app is driving in new members and is doing very well," John says. "From a revenue standpoint, we are seeing significant increases year over year, and it's accelerating."
John says the iPad app was a great investment for Gilt Groupe. But it's one that requires special care combined with enthusiasm.
"It's relatively easy to build an iPad app, but it takes a lot of work and dedication to optimize it for usability and functionality, and make it fit your brand," John says. "It has to also provide added value to the user. It has to be something that is above and beyond what you are offering in other channels."
Bergsund of Wine.com agrees that an iPad app must offer something new. "You have to use an app to do something that your web site can't do," he says. "To get your app into a customer's hands they have to go through a couple more steps than just typing in your URL. They have to go to the App Store, find it, download it. It better be good, different, have a unique reason to exist above and beyond your regular web site."
Gilt and Wine.com have created such apps, and they're already paying off. Given the explosive growth of iPads, and tablets in general, apps dedicated to those devices may become a necessity for retailers targeting the well-heeled consumer.
Bringing a hotel home
Usually a traveler has to be in a hotel to experience that hotel's brand. Not anymore at InterContinental Hotels Group. The hotel group has created an iPad app based on its cookbook, which includes recipes from its top chefs from hotels around the world. So when a traveler enjoys a great meal at an InterContinental restaurant, she can download the InterContinental Kitchen App and cook that meal at home.
"Having an app was a natural extension of the brand and a great way to connect the guest with a brand experience when they were not in the hotel but back home trying to recollect the memories and emotional connections," says Andrew Hairetis, director, brand innovations.
InterContinental cooked up the app in September 2011, working with digital marketing firm Engauge. Since then travelers have downloaded the app 10,000 times and users have logged 30,000 sessions.
An app user can elect on the home screen to search by Location or Recipe, or press Inspire Me to be whisked around a globe and wind up on a hotel where that hotel's chef's special recipes are displayed. Recipes provide step-by-step instructions and timers, and users can add ingredients to a grocery shopping list.
"The food and beverage experience is an inspirational, art-oriented discipline; it creates an inspiration when you have these great dishes," Hairetis says. "The app walks you through a recipe at the right pace that the chef would walk you through. The app takes you from the grocer to the kitchen to the dining room table."