April 29, 2011, 11:58 AM

Eyeing an Opportunity

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The Gilt Groupe app enables consumers to receive sales alerts, pinch and expand their fingers to view bigger, rich images, to touch and drag items to a shopping cart and to jump from one Gilt sale to another with one tap. The retailer, which has some 4 million members and sells products from more than 1,000 brands, says 177,000 consumers have downloaded its iPad app. As of January, about 100,000 consumers a month actively used the iPad app, compared with about 300,000 a month for the flash-sale site's iPhone app.

At the same time, most e-commerce sites render perfectly fine on the iPad, which is why many retailers are holding off creating apps specifically for the iPad.

"You usually create an app to adjust for the fact that the mobile form factor keeps you from using your site in a friendly way," says Sucharita Mulpuru, vice president and principal analyst for e-business at Forrester Research Inc. "The iPad is theoretically intended to reduce the form factor friction, enabling you to have a richer experience on this device."

Too Flashy?

Besides offering a richer experience, there's another reason to consider an iPad app, the fact that the iPad, like the iPhone, does not render Flash. Many e-commerce sites use Adobe Inc.'s Flash technology to present graphics, video and animation, and those elements will show up as blank boxes on an iPad or iPhone screen.

Ultimately, HTML5, the latest version of the HTML language used to create web sites, may solve that problem for retailers. It renders on Apple devices and can serve as a replacement for images now presented using Flash. Mobile technology vendors including Mobify use HTML5 to replace Flash in the mobile realm. Mobify has worked with hotel booking site Kiwi Collection and online bookseller Alibris.com to replace Flash with HTML5 for mobile sites and apps.

For now, however, retailers truly wanting to take advantage of the iPad will need a dedicated app, says Nikki Baird, managing partner at research and advisory firm Retail Systems Research. "In the short term the browser will work just fine, as long as you don't have Flash running," Baird says. For loyal shoppers, however, retailers can benefit from apps that keep a shopper logged in and allow her to customize her preferences. Further, with permission, the retailer can send shoppers pop-up text alerts via an app, a form of communication not possible through a mobile web site.

Turning the page

The combination of the relatively large color screen and the touch interface is leading many magazine publishers to tailor their content for the iPad—and for retailers to do the same with their printed catalogs. Retailers like Yoox S.p.a., Neiman Marcus and Toys 'R' Us are launching interactive iPad catalog apps that consumers can flip through as if they were thumbing through a paper magazine.

Yoox.com, an Italy-based retailer of tony apparel and home décor, launched an iPad app that lets shoppers flip from page to page with a touch of the finger to view high-resolution product images. A tap of an item brings up more images. Yoox developed its iPad app in-house and made it available in six languages; shoppers can have their purchases delivered to 67 countries.

Upscale department store chain Neiman Marcus offers a commerce-enabled catalog iPad app called NM Editions that lets customers view and shop not only from the retailer's web site but also from Neiman Marcus catalogs. For example, users of NM Editions last holiday season could shop the 84th edition of the retailer's famous Christmas Book.

Neiman Marcus says more than 1% of traffic to NeimanMarcus.com now comes from iPads. "For us, the iPad represents another way for our customers to access our web site," CEO Karen W. Katz told analysts recently.

Toys 'R' Us made a similar move in November, launching two versions of an iPad app for its Great Big Christmas Book—one for kids and one for adults. With the children's version, kids could browse the pages of the book that did not display prices, and drag items they wanted into a virtual gift box to create a wish list for parents. The adult app showed parents their children's picks and pricing information. Parents could edit the lists, e-mail them to friends and family, and click through to ToysRUs.com to buy.

Tablet for travel

And the iPad app is extending beyond retailers of physical goods. Best Western has found room for another mobile offering beyond its iPhone and Android smartphone apps with the recent launch of its iPad app. Consumers can use the app to book reservations at the more than 4,000 Best Western hotels worldwide.

In addition to reserving rooms, app users also can share travel experiences and photos through the app via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter, plan their travel by inputting addresses of attractions and restaurants nearby, and use a GPS-enabled map to create itineraries. Additionally, a trip saver tool allows users to save past trips, including favorite locations visited, or to save the itineraries they create for future trips.

IPad app users also can add pictures and additional information to the app to help them remember and share details about saved locations. They can categorize and sort locations by city, trip name and location type for easy future reference.

Best Western, which says its hotels host 400,000 guests each night, also took advantage of the larger screen of the iPad to place additional location icons on the map tool than it offers on mobile apps for smaller devices like smartphones. Best Western says this will make it easier for travelers to plan and navigate while on trips.

As online retailers plan and navigate their own mobile paths, they might want to consider making a stop at the iPad app. It's becoming quite the popular attraction, and the numbers suggest it's poised for growth.

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