The year of the new retail mobile app?

Last week saw the publication of a new report which claimed that mobile apps are the crucial tool for retailers wanting to appeal to the "always-on" consumer.

The Top Retailers & The App Economy study from market data providers App Annie and Kantar Retail found that Amazon and Argos were leading the large UK retailers in terms of number of app downloads achieved, but the release of the research has coincided with a raft of retailers rolling out new mobile applications.

DIY retailer Homebase is the latest big business in the industry to update its mobile strategy with the launch of an app that runs on multiple devices, including iOS 7 and Android. It gives shoppers an opportunity to browse and refine the entire Homebase product collection, check stock and reserve in-store, as well as to find their nearest store using GPS.

Homebase said that it now sees over 50% of its online traffic coming through smartphone and tablet devices, and revealed that its app has had more than 70,000 downloads.

Olivier Bernard, VP for the European, Middle East, Africa and Russia region at App Annie, said: "The primary role of mobile apps in in-­store shopping is to elevate the customer experience beyond what can simply be offered through physical stores and high streets.

"But, as technologies such as beacons and mobile payments develop further, we expect large retailers to go even further to provide an omnichannel experience that can't be matched by online-­ or mobile-­only competitors."

Perhaps a key criterion for retailers launching a mobile app is ensuring it provides something unique to their specific business. Over the last few weeks, jewellery business Gemporia and sports equipment brand Adidas have brought to market unique applications that fit their individual company requirements.

Gemporia's new 'ring sizer app' has been designed with the aim of avoiding people buying their partners rings that do not fit. Free to download, Gemporia's new technology allows people to place a ring on the device and take a digital measurement that is stored on the app.

Consumers looking to surprise their loved ones can therefore subtly store away their partners' ring sizes without having to sneakily borrow an existing piece of jewellery.

Gemporia's CEO and founder, Steve Bennett, said: "We wanted to put an end to the perfect proposal being blighted by the wrong-sized ring – and we think the missing part of the puzzle is now in place."

Meanwhile, last week saw global sports brand Adidas roll out its 'Adidas Confirmed' sneaker reservation app, which is part of a wider marketing campaign for the company's new Kanye West collaboration.

Working alongside mobile platform GPShopper, Adidas has developed an app that it says gives consumers more control over limited releases, provides all consumers with an equal opportunity of getting access to the shoes, and allows for instant confirmation of product availability.

It leverages geo-targeting technology to allow for verification of location, while protecting consumers from "bots" that often dilute launches on social media platforms such as Twitter. Users sign up when downloading the app, reserve the product they want to buy and are then issued push notifications when the item is ready to collect, which they can then do in Adidas retail stores and at select wholesale partners.

Simon Atkins, Adidas vice president of brand activation, remarked: "Until now, the industry standard for reserving hype sneakers has been social media or lottery-based systems, which often result in long lines and unclaimed reservations.

"We thought about our consumers, what platforms they're using the most and what would make the most sense for them. The Adidas Confirmed mobile app is our way of improving the customer experience and reaching kids in an environment where they spend most of their time."

The features of mobile apps are certainly evolving, and the App Annie/Kantar report picks out John Lewis and Topshop as examples of retailers that "enrich" shopping experiences on mobile, through such methods as unlockable content and barcode scanners for reviews and recommendations.

Last month, however, saw department store chain House of Fraser bring to market an android app with a built-in personalised stock checker.

Poq Studio provides the platform for the new tool and the tech company created the interactive app which allows customers to save their preferred specifications, including product size and nearest store. 

The new launch comes at a time when, like Homebase, House of Fraser is generating more than half of its online traffic from mobile devices. It also comes as a growing number of consumers choose to shop in-store while using their smartphones, which the retailer has acknowledged through the provision of barcode scanning and GPS in the app, which give customers the opportunity to access product reviews and real-time stock information related to the store they are visiting.

Another intriguing development this year was the unveiling of the first ever retail and consumer app from a UK train station.

Early January saw London's St Pancras International – the home of the Eurostar and national rail services across the UK – launch the StP app, in association with mCommerce business Paythru and retail consultancy and integration firm Javelin Group.

Using the app, retailers, which initially include Bsix, Rituals and BHRC, can engage with app-users immediately by creating real-time offers as people walk through or approach the station. The new mobile tool allows for promotional offers to be customised in-store by the retailer and set to target particular consumer age brackets, genders and profiles to give retailers a real-time interactive platform and opportunity to capitalise on traditionally quiet periods.

The technology from Paythru can be white-labelled and customised to suit retailers' specific requirements. Meanwhile over time, Javelin Group and St Pancras owner HS1 will use the analytics to deliver insights back to the retail tenants to help shape their train station mobile strategies.

It represents the latest innovation at the rail hub, which last summer rolled out high speed public Wi-Fi that has the capacity for 7,000 people to simultaneously stream high-definition content on their digital devices.

Steve Mader, Kantar Retail's director of digital insights, suggested that the role of the mobile app has evolved considerably since the launch of the first retail versions at the turn of the decade. This is a trend that seems set to continue as more and more retailers and retail destinations begin to understand their increasingly digital-driven customers.

"It is clear that apps are no longer a nice-­to-­have for retailers in the UK, they are instead a vital part of effective sales, customer engagement and brand loyalty strategies," he explained.

"Multi­channel retailers that can manifest their brand equity across both physical and virtual points of shopper interaction are poised to capture higher share of mind and loyalty –­ a necessity when faced with fast-­growing competitors."