Tablets open a new frontier for shoppers

Tablets open a new frontier for shoppers

Retailers like HSN want tablet apps to be more about browsing than bargain hunting. TheFind, a shopping search engine, introduced an app that creates interactive catalogues for retailers like Crate & Barrel and Sephora. NYT

Now, though, retailers like Net-a-Porter think they have found a way to give online shopping more of the feel of an outing at the mall or an hour with a catalog — by creating apps that resemble magazines for tablet computers. Just as magazine publishers are producing iPad apps that mimic print in a way they never could on ordinary Web sites, retailers are making iPad catalogues, with big, stylized photographs that users can flip through on the couch or in bed. And also like magazine publishers, they are adding rich features like video, sound and 3-D views.

Though most retailers started with the iPad, some are starting to build versions for other tablets. EBay, for instance, is building Android tablet apps and a new version of its Web site designed for tablets. Others, like Blue Nile, the online diamond retailer, are taking a different approach, constructing tablet versions of their Web sites instead of apps on the theory that most traffic still comes through Web searches.

The idea is to offer “shop-ertainment,” said Siva Kumar, chief executive of TheFind, a shopping search engine that last week introduced Catalogue, a tablet app that pulls together interactive catalogues from about 30 retailers including Crate & Barrel and Sephora.

Traditional retailers like Sears and Ralph Lauren, along with e-commerce focused companies like Amazon, Gilt, QVC, HSN and eBay have all introduced tablet apps.
Many retailers say they see a lucrative future in tablet shopping because even though tablets made up only about 4.4 percent of all computers shipped in 2010, according to Morgan Stanley, they are expected to make up about 20 percent within two years. And iPad owners, who tend to be affluent given the $499 price tag for the device, already prefer not only browsing but also buying from a retailer’s app rather than the Web site in some cases.

At Net-a-Porter, for example, about 15 percent of shoppers buy from the iPad app, while eBay says the average purchase amount through its iPad app is higher than through either its Web site or through mobile phones. Meanwhile, Blue Nile executives say they expect iPad shopping to outpace Web shopping at some point.

Retailers also see the tablet as a more appealing backdrop for presenting their goods. On a computer, anyone can put up a Web site and compete with an established retailer. But on a tablet, big retailers have the deep pockets and development skills to set up eye-catching features and also add the ability to drop an item in a cart with a quick drag of a finger.

It is also easier than on a phone, say, to swipe to the next image or zoom in on a hemline. And the image and video quality are often better than on either phones or computers.

At the same time, tablets allow retailers to fix what many think went wrong for them online, when search engines made shopping all about the price, rather than about the store. In the new apps, retailers edit their merchandise, focusing on just a few top items. This is meant to appeal to shoppers who might be overwhelmed by the pages of search results they see on a computer. Because it is about presentation and selection rather than price, it gets the stores out of the low-price game that many are forced to play online, and back into being fashion arbiters.

“The iPad app is really our magazine app,” said Alison Loehnis, vice president of sales and marketing for Net-a-Porter. Its app was introduced last summer, and has been downloaded 120,000 times.

“Our site was founded on the desire to create a fashion magazine that you can shop from, and this whole notion of literally being able to move things around on the page and slide things into a shopping basket and touch things with your fingers the way you would do in a magazine is really a dream come true,” Loehnis said.

EBay, which had an iPad app ready to go the day that Apple introduced the tablet, also set it up for leisure time.

“We speculated, along with some input from Apple, that people would use the iPad like a book or a magazine, so the idea was a comfy chair, the couch, the bed, where a laptop doesn’t work very well,” said Steve Yankovich, vice president of eBay Mobile.

At Gilt, a flash-sale site, the iPad app “truly is sort of an entertainment source during the member’s downtime” said the company’s chief product officer, Stefan Pepe. Gilt’s sales start at a specific time, and it has a limited amount of merchandise, and so its Web site and iPhone app are geared toward quick shopping.

Amazon’s tablet app, Windowshop, is also heavily visual, showing rows of images with tiny bits of text beneath them, and that seems to draw customers in, said Sam Hall, director of mobile for “The thing that customers have commented on is there’s this area of serendipity,” Hall said. “Windowshop looks so different from other shopping experiences, and we show you so many images at once, that you find yourself five minutes later looking at something that you had no intention of looking at originally.”