Is it essential that every retail business has an app?

I recently chaired a discussion panel on apps and can honestly say that I didn’t know a great deal about them. Since then, I have been grappling with this thought: ‘Does every company now need an app just like it needs a website?’ More importantly, is it essential that every retail business has an app?

I do understand the allure of games. The biggest-selling app at the moment is Angry Birds. It provides hours of gameplay and challenging physics-based castle demolition. Angry Birds is completely brilliant and absolutely addictive. The gist of it is that there is a family of five dysfunctional birds with anger-management problems. They are peacefully living their lives, taking care of their eggs and eating worms, but for the annoyance of a family of hungry pigs who disturb their quiet lives. The birds go to war with the pigs and try to destroy the fortified pig castles. That’s the game. It’s simple, strategic and huge fun. The app sells for 99 cents and by the end of November there had been more than 10 million downloads, which equals $10m. It is a phenomenon.

So, having seen the success of this app, I do wonder whether retailers will ever capture that sense of fun that the technology offers, to attract new customers. Ideally, an app on an iPhone or iPad should offer more than what is already available on the company’s website. But, at the moment, when you look at many of the retailers’ apps, they tend to be condensed versions of their websites with a strong ecommerce element. Tesco and Ocado pretty much do this. However, Waitrose is moving in a more creative direction. It’s app is a bit like having a personal shopper. It is amazingly efficient and very easy to use and it must be encouraging impulse buying. One element of the app is simple but effective. You can download a recipe and, as you go round the shop or shop online, it will tell you the ingredients to buy to make your chosen dish. The app works efficiently and quickly with just enough information to be helpful and it does not get in the way of doing a basic shop.

Another good example of creative app use is from H&M, which launched its app 12 weeks ago. It’s already been downloaded by more than two million users. You can browse the store, see what clothes are available, engage in discussion forums, post things on Facebook, share with your friends and, not least, shop online. In New York the app was used for offering discounts on certain items, offering an added incentive.

I can see that most retailers will be looking hard at this new technology and wondering just how they can use the app to engage with their customer in a far more creative way than is currently happening. Any retailer that has witnessed the impact of such a clever game as Angry Birds will want to find a way to harness that level of appeal but to add a retail element to it. I’m sure that day is not far off, but in the meantime those Angry Birds will continue to dominate the downloads.

Moira Benigson managing partner, MBS Group