Retailers, learn from IKEA: multiple mobile applications is not a strategy

“Well, sir, what is your household income? Right. Are you in a store or at home? Ok, you’ll want to download the WalMart app number 47342 not 47341.”

I get it: retail is a mix of science, art, human behavioural analytics, and testing. It is not as simple as stocking shelves and putting candy near the cash register. It is something we will never perfect, constantly being disrupted today by abundant consumer choice and a shift in power away from the traditional retailer.

Mobile is at the centre of this disruption and gaining momentum, so if you thought barcode and QR code scanning is the destination, you are going to be in for a huge surprise. Many retailers have opted for mobile applications – IKEA being the latest to release a stunning mobile app (while leaving their website to rot – that’s another story), and it is with the Ikea app that I would like to tell a story.

The IKEA Approach

I can’t really believe there is a debate going on right now about if retailers should take a “catchall” or “multi-app” strategy. This article from Mobile Marketer is a good primer for this ridiculousness. In it, Rolfe Swinton (CEO of Lumi Mobile) argues that “The Multi-app approach is a better way to go” because “it fits with human behaviour and needs and helps people better segment their own needs.” Well Rolfe, I beg to differ, here’s why.

IKEA, the experiential Swedish retailer, was founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad (the “IK” in IKEA) and had a hand in changing the retail experience for good. They did this by modelling their first stores on New York’s Guggenheim Museum – not their competition. Today, you wander through experience after experience, room by room until you hit the warehouse ready to spend. IKEA leads you through a vision – allows you to touch that vision – but then helps you to narrow your focus to buy what you need and, as is often the case, much much more.

Their app allows you to do the same. Looking for a kitchen or a bath towel? Part of the same app. Trying to find the right office chair of picture frame? No need to download the IKEA Office App or the IKEA picture frame app is there? Nope. IKEA understands the way their shopper works – or rather the way their shopper has been trained to work – within the confines of an IKEA property. This understanding includes the serendipitous nature of meandering through the store just browsing or racing towards a product to buy. They get retail. They understand their customer. Having multiple apps for them would be akin to opening the IKEA kitchen store or the IKEA bedroom store – an idea I’m sure they’ve toyed with but haven’t done and for good reason.

To consider multiple apps for retailers – including Walmart – would be confusing to the consumer. We aren’t dumb but we are impatient and the effort it takes for a retailer – ANY retailer – to convince us of the value of their app and then convince us to download it and use it consistently should be a lesson we all understand. App usage is a terrifying statistic – 96% of apps are no longer used after 30 days from download. Segmenting your market by product type (as EBAY has done) or by income level, or by analytics is a surefire way to leave money on the table for other offerings and a complete affront to the opportunities that mobile brings.

Mobile is not a retail store – stop treating it like one

Statements like this from Mark Beccue, a Senior Analyst at ABI Research, scare the crap out of me: “A multi-purpose app when it comes to retail can be detrimental, you can’t let consumers fumble around too much – the app has to serve them in the most immediate way possible.”

This is utterly false and a sign that the true power of mobile has not been understood. For the most part, if you build multiple mobile retail products for a single organization you have failed somewhere along the development process. Mobile has an incredible toolset to pull from and collects reams of data that can be used to serve the ultimate experience without having to segment and force consumers to download a new app every time they are interested in shopping “outside of their demographic.” For example, would you build a separate mobile app for customers who are outside the store (i.e. in their living room) versus inside the store? No. Same app but add a location layer that hands the transition off seamlessly from broad category shopping (out of store) to finite product location while in-store.

Behavioural tendencies are a part of retail science – which explains why the impulse buys are waiting for us when we line up to check out and pay for our purchases. Mobile can do that but not if is segmented into multiple apps. Forcing consumers to download more than one app is a bad idea and one that will split audiences and confuse even more.

The best example of adaptive retail that I have ever seen – and one we should take lessons from – are the street vendors in Times Square, New York. They have a single display but throughout the day, depending on weather, time of day, crowd and season, they use that display to tailor product to the audience. When it rains in New York they flip their entire inventory to umbrellas and rain coats almost immediately because they know that tourists often don’t consider bringing these things with them. The moment the sun appears the rain gear disappears and new product takes its place.

If these street vendors don’t have to open up a new shop or force their customers to change behaviours, why should you?

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About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

  • Liza

    What about retailers that have different use cases they are dealing with i.e. paying a bill, product detail / warranty information / manuals, service – as well as shopping? Do you think these should all be in one umbrella app or perhaps a shoppers app and a owners app?

  • Great question Liza. The Ikea example is really about the shopping experience and I wouldn’t confuse that with the other pieces you’ve described. A few things on the other options: They all seem to be “above the store” type of services. Bill paying is facilitated through a bank, warrantee information is with the product manufacturer (or through the store’s extended warrantee which is often managed by a third party provider) and manuals are product-based. They seem to be handled but not in a cohesive, user-focused way.

    I think the last thing people would want are multiple apps for multiple vendors to manage multiple products…perhaps there is a business opportunity here???

  • Liza

    Thanks for the input! My company is a little different than others where while not all financing is through us, we do finance a good percentage of buyers and it is under our branding.

    I think in some sue cases it makes sense for separate apps – and probably in the situation I am looking at. When you have distinct user populations doing different tasks i.e. shopping vs servicing. However I agree with you that breaking up the use cases within these larger segments for different apps – your example of a different app by what you are shopping for — seems like overkill. Perhaps there is a balance in there somewhere. Thanks for your time!

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