An app should be the easiest way to make a purchase, and offer other benefits, such as discounts.

In their mobile strategies, most major retailers rely heavily on apps–branded mobile applications designed to enhance the shopping experience, increase conversion, and promote loyalty. But so far, the “stickiness” of retailer apps has been lacking; consumers download them for specific uses or occasions and then never return.

Let’s face it. In the world of apps, competition is stiff. On the smartphone or tablet screen, retailers have to compete with social sites, games, calendars, video portals, other online retailers, and much more.  As they add new apps, people tend to delete infrequently used ones, which means retailers may need to convince consumers to re-load the same app over and over again, which is an even bigger hurdle.

Like the stereotypical Method actor, the smartphone user subconsciously asks, “What’s my motivation? Why return to this retailer’s app when so many others beckon?”

On Prime Day this year, Amazon made an impact across a variety of platforms, including mobile. According to GfK’s KnowledgePanel Digital, which passively collects digital behaviors on smartphones, PCs and tablets, use of the Amazon app doubled, a far greater spike than the site registered that day. Typically, visits to the Amazon website far outnumber those to the company’s app; but on Prime Day, use was virtually equal, with people ages 18 to 34 actually turning to the app more than the site.

We also saw increased Amazon app visits among other age groups, showing the potential to make apps one of a retailer’s most important and valuable shopper engagement tools. Even Walmart saw its app usage increase during Prime Day, as consumers on the go compared deals before buying.


After Prime Day, however, app use for both Amazon and Walmart quickly reverted to pre-Prime Day levels. Those results–the gains and the return to normality–point out a nagging challenge for retailers in the mobile space: how to transcend “one-off” usage, designing apps that inspire sustained use over time. What can retailers do to win real loyalty for their smartphone surrogates?

Here are a few possible remedies for the “stickiness” syndrome so many retailers face.

1. FoMO.

Fear of missing out (FoMO) is a very powerful motivator and the psychological secret behind social media success. We fear regret, we fear losing, we fear missing something that others will get. These fears keep us connected. That’s why Amazon app use was strong during Prime Day: the fear of missing out on deals that popped up and expired throughout the day, and the fear of finding that an item you wanted was sold out.


Amazon leveraged this feeling by showing a timer counting down the minutes until the deal was over, while a status bar let you know how many items were left in stock. The app provided a watch-list of products, and an app user could ask for alerts via phone when a deal went live on items they were interested in. Providing the ability in an app to stay connected to time-sensitive information or offerings should help the app stick.

Frequency is key here. Starbucks has a great app, with mobile payment and loyalty program benefits, and it’s very easy to use. But the frequency with which customers visit helps ingrain the app into their habits. And when an app becomes a habit, it will stick. Offer things like information, pop-up sales on many days throughout the year, on a time-sensitive basis, to attract shoppers on the go. Amazon—seemingly our constant success model in e-commerce—is doing this with Lightening Sales items post-Prime Day, and they happen to be personalized based on items consumers have searched for in the past.

2. Wish Fulfilment.

Internet browsing has replaced daydreaming. It has become our way of escaping or killing time. Evidence suggests that we browse on websites in an unstructured, unfocused way, but we primarily use e-commerce apps when we’re getting serious, focused, and ready to buy. Clearly that means the app has to work really well on transactions; but if you can get more of the browsing action on apps, they will become a more important, on-going shopping channel. Next time someone is waiting in line, waiting for a friend, waiting for a meal to be served, let them use your app to browse wherever their wishes take them.


Shoppers don’t browse as much on apps because they don’t perceive them to be as convenient as websites for that purpose. More design attention should be put into encouraging exploration, comparison shopping, dreaming—and wish fulfilment.

3. Up the Value

This might sound obvious, but an app needs to offer benefits that the shopper can’t get anywhere else: transactions on the go, saving time, saving money. Storing coupons/deals/points means I won’t miss out on savings (Michael’s, Starbucks). Offering mobile payments gives an option that may be more convenient or feel more secure (CVS, Walmart, Starbucks). Providing free shipping if an app is used to order an out-of-stock item while at the store gives an extra high-value benefit (Kohl’s). And this is where brick-and-mortar retailers can leverage an advantage.

Amazon’s app can provide e-commerce benefits; but other retailer apps have more to work with, providing omnichannel and e-commerce perks. Consumers are excellent at spotting and noticing true value; if you think you’re offering value but you’re not seeing traction, you may not be offering enough.


4.      Easy.

Using an app should be the easiest way to accomplish something. It should be simpler than using a website, a mobile site, the phone, or even handling in-person. The apps I find myself using the most are those that provide the easiest way to get hotel reservations (Marriott), find restaurants (Yelp), check the weather, download music. Those things are usually a couple clicks on an app versus multiple clicks on a site. And when I am forced to call a hotel or restaurant on the phone these days, that really annoys me.

5.      Communication Flow.

Retailer email messages drive readers to their sites much more often than to apps. Exceptions are Groupon, Zulily, and Etsy. If retailers want to encourage app use, create a flow that pushes consumers to the app.


Apps provide a wealth of motivations to retailers, offering a direct line to consumers on the devices they carry with them everywhere. But keeping that line of communication open takes ingenuity and effort. Mimicking your marketing on other platforms is simply not enough; give consumers reasons to be your “app fans,” and you’ll reap the benefits seven days a week.

Based in Germany, GfK SE specializes in market research and user experience.