Are We Really Going To Shop From The Apple Watch? What Retail Apps Are Trying To Achieve


Rachel Arthur, Contributor

May 8, 2015

When Apple makes a major announcement like a move into the wearables category, it’s guaranteed a long line of other businesses will jump on board any which way they can; aiming for success by association with relevant launches of their own.

Needless to say there were multiple new apps created in time for the Apple Watch hitting stores in April on that very basis. 3,500 to be precise. Retail is one of the key categories within that, with Target, Asos, Amazon, JC Penney and Marks & Spencer just some examples of those who introduced new applications specifically.

Many of these brands aren’t normally what we’d consider early movers in such a tech game. So what are they trying to achieve? Are such efforts merely about benefitting from the media coverage likely to follow, or do they actually think there’s potential to be shopping from our wrists?

In researching this piece, everyone I either spoke to in passing or formally interviewed, unanimously agreed a screen at 38mm or 42mm is not going to be ideal for browsing e-commerce pages, especially in the apparel space, no matter how optimized they’ve been made. As Lucie Greene, worldwide director at J Walter Thompson Intelligence, says: “It’s been established that even on smartphones, consumers want detail and rich visuals to make purchases on mobile devices and I’m not sure that’s entirely possible yet on a watch.”

Sagarika Sundaram, strategist at creative consultancy Wolff Olins, was of the same thought: “The Apple Watch today is not an object that you want to browse on – the screen is too small for you to want to spend too much time looking at your wrist.” Apps, like Uber’s, that do one thing really well, will be the most successful, she said. It’s about singular functions and specific use cases. For retailers she refers to ideas like bookmarking a dress, saving a coupon for later or setting up an alert for a sale as features that will be useful, but also things that ultimately users will come back to on their phones.

It’s that point that seems to be the winning one – ensuring the app is an extension of what already exists on the iPhone and not another version of the same. Justin Cooke, founder and CEO of music start-up Tunepics and former CMO of Topshop, says developers who ‘get’ the Apple Watch tend to understand this and are not trying to simply replicate the iPhone experience. The Apple Watch app he has launched for Tunepics enables users to share an element of emotion alongside their music.

“I think the key here is that the Apple Watch is perfect for delivering instant notifications and quick glances, sharing information that can be acted on or ignored quickly and easily via the watch face. Anything with a lot of detail or information, and that require a longer, deeper level of interaction is best suited to iPhone,” he explains.

Asos is acknowledging this. When scrolling through product on its app (on the basis you are of course inclined to do so on said small screen), users can save items they’re interested in, then jump over to their phones to see more detail. That ‘Handoff’ feature is also accompanied by alerts on the watch when a product you want comes back in stock or falls in price. The understanding there is that you instantly need to see it on your wrist rather than willingly waiting long enough to see it on your phone otherwise. Debatable perhaps.

Amazon has done something similar. Its 1-click purchase is particularly a seamless one however, and certainly an appealing factor if you know exactly what you’re after and can search for it. The idea of being able to speak and save a shopping idea as a note for later, also seems smart.

Where some more interesting opportunities seem to lie otherwise, are with those retailers with brick and mortar stores. Woolworths, a major supermarket chain in Australia, for instance, provides navigation to the user’s nearest store with its app, as well as the exact aisle to find the groceries they’re after. Target in the US is offering something very similar.

This focus on service over sales is also the case with M&S, which has released a watch version of its popular Cook with M&S app. It provides recipes (along with shopping lists), as well as a timing feature for those at work in the kitchen.

Another use is couponing. The Kohl’s Apple Watch app allows users to scan coupons, Yes2You loyalty rewards and Kohl’s Cash during the checkout process.

What’s interesting about all of the aforementioned examples is how applicable they might be at this stage to the type of consumer that’s actually bought the Apple Watch. As The Washington Post wrote about JC Penney’s app, which helps users locate specific items in stock as well as navigate its stores: “Is there really much overlap between the affluent, early-adopters who buy the Apple Watch and the serial deal hunters that frequent [JC Penney] stores?” It’s an interesting point.

In short, the majority of releases from retailers so far feel like a PR move above all else. Sundaram calls it a scramble for territory, but also a period of experimentation. This is something Elizabeth Canon, founder and president of the FC Tech Group, agrees with. She references several upsides to jumping on board from the off: “[There’s] the press and exposure for being an ‘innovative’ brand, capturing a potentially larger audience before the app market becomes more saturated, and the great learning opportunity in seeing what works and what doesn’t before many of your competitors.”

The risks that come with that however surround investing resources into something that doesn’t end up adopted by your customers or prospects, thus limiting your return on investment to whatever press you were able to garner and whatever small pool of data you can collect from users, Canon explains.

“To avoid this, you have to first understand the actual functionality of the technology and the behavior of how people use it. Only then can you really strategize how your brand can participate to best serve your customer and meet your business objectives. The problem is that all too often brands do this in the opposite order and the result is ultimately a waste of resources,” she adds. What Canon would rather see from retailers is investment in accepting Apple Pay in stores and online, using that to then observe user behavior of the Apple Watch before putting effort into a dedicated app.

For Maani Safa, VP of innovation and creative at mobile marketing solutions company Somo, payments are an enormous part of the watch and capability absolutely needs to be integrated across stores. Where he sees potential beyond that relates to the Internet of Things and the personalized, connected store. “If a specific [brand] were to add beacons throughout their stores and they were to know your purchase history (which they do), all you would need to do would be to download the store app and sign in. From there the store could communicate with you as you walked past (outside), tell you about discounted products it KNOWS you like, give you spot discounts (inside the store), updates, guidance and more.”

Indeed the greatest opportunities for retailers in the long-term, alongside Apple Pay, seem to surround in-store, location-based and personalized notifications, rather than merely e-commerce. Then again, we could just reach into our handbags or our pockets and do all of that on our iPhones for now instead.

This article was written by Rachel Arthur from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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