Mobile App Strategies of Online Retailers, Pt. 1: Amazon’s Breathtaking App Armada

With the ongoing switch from desktop Internet with webpages and Google as distribution channel to a mobile Internet with native apps and Facebook install ads and app stores as distribution channels (with the latter hardly amounting to much regarding discovery), the approach to how to build out your online retail presence necessarily changes dramatically.

While browsers, webpages and Google -the old paradigm- allowed for people to quickly check out what you had to offer, the mobile app world is distinctively different: The initial hurdle here is much higher. Making a person click on a link vs bringing a person to install your app changes everything. Getting that initial foot in the door is very hard. But once you’re ‘in’, the opportunities are greater: With mobile apps it is far easier to make a first-time customer into a regular customer:

  • Done right, a native app opens faster than a website
  • The app on the smartphone is always with the customer, allowing for a wider variety of situations in which to use said app
  • Features like push notifications and dynamic widgets allow a direct way to (re-)engage with customers beyond the classic pull relationship
  • Interaction models can be more sophisticated on native apps than on websites, creating a richer UX
  • Additionally, apps can access data input points like the camera, contacts or GPS. (Technically, this is true for websites as well, at least for GPS location. The deciding difference though, as is so often the case, is the friction that comes with it.)

Obviously, all online retailers in the West try to be on Android and iOS. Sometimes an app may launch earlier on one platform or the other but eventually they all come to all platforms. That is different in other parts of the world. In some countries, iOS is close to nonexistent. In China, WeChat dominates the mobile Internet to a degree that makes it for most companies even hard to justify doing a native mobile stand-alone app. (Disadvantage: another middle man, advantage: your WeChat mini program works on iOS and Android just the same. And your ‘install’ hurdle is far lower.)

Today, we start our new series on mobile app strategies of online retailers with Amazon.

Amazon's app on prime day Amazon is mainly leaning on its main app for its online retail operations. We’ll see in later installments of this series that this is not the case for every online retailer. And, thanks to Amazon’s breadth and scale, it is not even entirely true for Amazon, even though management clearly would prefer a single Amazon app. The Amazon main app tries to fulfill any need the Amazon customer may have. That leads to, say, some menues going down further the hierarchy than what makes sense. The main Amazon app hosts, or, in some cases more aptly, ‘hides’, such different features as “Interesting Finds” and the Treasure Truck and many many more.

Also, whilst Amazon is maintaining an armada of apps (see below) as a company, the main Amazon app clearly shows that it is comeing from a place that started in a different era. At its heart, Amazon’s e-commerce business is still a desktop Internet business. Look to the right at this screenshot of Amazon’s app from this year’s Prime Day here in Germany: Not one of the category descriptions got the luxury of being spelled out completely. Now, yes, the German language has its ways with extra long words, but still.. It is just one of many examples for how careless Amazon is with its mobile app. (Imagine this on the desktop website. Unthinkable.) Maybe Jeff Bezos, who reportedly is still obsessed with Amazon’s start page, should check in on the mobile app once in a while.

Amazon Prime Now is the biggest exception to the ‘one app for shopping’-rule at Amazon. Launched at the end of 2014 in Manhattan, Prime Now slowly expanded over the last couple of years. Prime Now is, in a lot of ways, Amazon’s only truly mobile offering for e-commerce.

While the main Amazon app only translates the website’s contents and look & feel to the mobile app, and badly so at times, Prime Now, which is mobile only, takes advantage of mobile:

  • Fast delivery works perfectly with a certain kind of impulse shopping. (A different kind of impulse shopping is catered to by Wish. We’ll talk about that in the next installment of this series.)
  • Place (smartphone), assortment and unique selling point of the service (very fast delivery) go hand in hand
  • Prime Now allows precise tracking of orders. The main app has this as well, but in a less sophisticated manner. (Because, again, the operations (processes) behind Amazon were build before the mobile app era. With Prime Now on the other hand, this has always been part of the system.)

Amazon prime now app

The Prime Now app is still very clearly an Amazon app; one can see the CI shine through. But the difference between the Amazon app and the Prime Now app is stark. Prime Now feels like an app worthy of an e-commerce giant like Amazon, while Amazon’s main app, well, does not.

Amazon also has a second “now” app called “Amazon Now – Grocery Shopping” that, as the name gave it away, is for groceries:

2 hour delivery of groceries, fruits, vegetables, daily essentials and more
Available in various pin codes across Bengaluru, Delhi-NCR, Mumbai & Hyderabad

Amazon Now

Amazon Now is only available in India, as far as we can tell.

The other big exception is, as always, Zappos, which is operating a separate app as well. Zappos and its mobile app fits the least into Amazon’s overall mobile strategy. This also means that if Zappos is successful on mobile, this would prove internally that spreading categories amongst dedidcated apps may be worthwhile. A multi-app approach for mobile shopping looks certainly more feasable for Amazon to pull off thanks to its already established reach in the company’s core markets, than it is for other, smaller online retailers.

Zappos app

Besides the Zappos app, Zappos also runs the 6PM app:

6pm is your premium destination for discount fashion. 6pm is the off-price retail division of Zappos IP, Inc. 6pm offers hundreds of styles, brands and a huge variety of items for the whole family to choose from all up to 70% off MSRP.

Interestingly, Zappos also has a Fire TV app.

Souq of course still runs its own app as well, which maybe will see rebranding in its near future.

Shopbop, acquired by Amazon in 2006, has its own app as well. Having your own app, when being on the online retail side of things, seems to hang on the fact wether your team started inside or outside of Amazon. (Meaning: Being acquired makes it more likely to have your own app nowadays, for whatever reason.) Another example for this is the Woot app.

Amazon Widget for Android hints at how much experimentation can be done on mobile operating systems by online retailers (unfortunately we have seen few mobile e-commerce experiments to date):

Enjoy fast, easy access to Amazon Deals of the Day and other limited-time savings and sales directly from your home screen. You can also search across all of Amazon, and quickly access your Amazon lists and orders.

This app is compatible with all Amazon Prime exclusive phones.

Interestingly, Amazon has a separate app for Amazon India. This reflects Amazon’s decision to set up a separate business for the Indian market, so not to repeat the mistakes made in China. (Amazon failed in the latter in part because of US-American ignorance towards the world outside the US.) Amazon Japan has a separate app as well, as does Amazon France.

Amazon Assistant is an outlier: A browser extension app for Android that finds prices on Amazon while one is browsing products in the browser. The app only works on Samsung devices running the Dolphin browser or Samsung’s own browser. Read: It hardly matters. It is still interesting that Amazon is offering this. According to prioridata, Amazon Assistant has seen 207.000 downloads to date.

Amazon runs quite a few separate apps for the company’s distinct services:

  • IMDB
  • Amazon Music
  • Amazon Photos
  • Amazon Video
  • Amazon WorkDocs (“Amazon WorkDocs delivers secure enterprise storage and sharing with strong administrative controls and innovative markup capabilities that improve employee productivity.”)
  • Audible (audio books)
  • Amazon Cloud Drive
  • Amazon Fire TV Remote
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Amazon Chime (Amazon’s new video conferencing and meeting online service)
  • Goodreads
  • Amazon FreeTime for Kids (“Amazon FreeTime Unlimited is a parent-approved, all-in-one subscription for kids that offers unlimited access to thousands of kid-friendly books, children’s movies, and TV shows starting at $2.99/mo.”)
  • Amazon WorkSpaces (iPad only)
  • Amazon App Suite
  • Amazon App Tester
  • Amazon AppStream Basic Client (“Amazon AppStream is a flexible, low-latency service that lets you stream resource intensive applications from the cloud.“)
  • Amazon QuickSight (“Amazon QuickSight is a cloud-native business analytics application that makes it easy to visualize, explore, and share insights from your data. “)
  • Amazon Rapids (“Amazon Rapids offers a playful approach to children’s reading, with illustrated and original short stories written in a unique chat style that brings stories to life, one message at a time. “)
  • Amazon Underground
  • Comics (Formerly known as ComiXology)
  • Twitch
  • Twitch Messenger (Messenger belonging to Twitch, formerly known as Curse)
  • Transparency (“Transparency shows you details about participating product’s origins, including the manufacturing date and location.”)

And a few more like a bundle of Curse addons for Minecraft, Flow (an AR app abandoned in 2015; on the back-end/ML side sits with A9 Data Collection an abandoned app as well, both were probably part of the Fire Phone push), and fringe apps like an app for the AWS IoT Button.

Few probably know that Amazon also has a mobile game developer department. Amazon Game Studios has published 15 mobile games, according to AppAnnie. This makes sense from a platform angle: Amazon is trying to establish its mobile OS, Fire OS. While Fire OS is a fork of Android and thus, in theory, can run Android apps, developers still need to bring their apps to the Fire appstore and maybe do minor adjustments. That’s a big enough barrier for most not to do it as Amazon’s Fire ecosystem is not that large yet compared to Android and iOS. So, as a platform vendor, one route to solve this puzzle is to provide initial services as first-party.

The mobile Amazon Alexa app is worth noting separately here. This is the companion app to Amazon’s voice platform Alexa. The mobile app allows using Alexa on the mobile device. (Poor Amazon doesn’t own a mobile OS to put Alexa on..) The app allows installing skills (third-party apps/services) on Alexa for use on the Echo and other Alexa-enabled speakers. The Alexa app is also Amazon’s app for smart home administration. (Again, makes sense, given that Alexa is in parts also Amazon’s smart home play, being the platform/interface to connect to and control smart home devices.)

Amazon Alexa app

Recently, Amazon introduced voice calling and messaging for Alexa. These features didn’t only come to the Echo devices but also to the Alexa app. It is here where the strategic importance of the Alexa app becomes clear: If Amazon ever wants to establish a social network around Alexa it needs the mobile app: Only the mobile app lowers the barriers for entry low enough to make that even conceivable.

The Alexa app also has a shopping list feature, connecting on a very basic level the main business to Amazon’s ambitious platform play.

Taken everything together, a clear picture emerges: The Alexa companion app, just like Alexa itself, is a general purpose vehicle for Amazon. One caveat though: The Alexa Look got its own dedicated mobile app with the same name. Again, makes sense. This may also mean that more stand-alone Alexa apps will be released in the future.

On the B2B side, Amazon provides the Amazon Seller app. With this app, sellers can manage orders and inventory, can check item prices on Amazon, estimate the profitability of potential items before selling them on the marketplace. The Amazon Seller app brings everything small-scale merchants need:

  • Analyze your sales. View sales over time and sales growth. Drill down into sales at a product-level. Tap the bars on the Sales Chart to see sales broken down by product. Then tap on a product to view the sales trend for it.
  • Fix critical issues. Quickly act on critical pricing opportunities, inventory alerts and growth opportunities from Amazon Selling Coach.
  • Manage your inventory. Easily update your prices and available quantities.
  • Manage your orders. Get notified when your product sells. View your pending orders and confirm shipments.
  • Manage your returns. Authorize or close returns, issue refunds, and modify returns settings.
  • View next payment balance. See how much and when you’ll be paid by Amazon.
  • Respond to messages. Numbers that appear next to Communications inform you of how many customer messages await a response. Use customizable email templates to reply even faster to common customer inquiries.
  • Capture and edit professional quality product photos using the Photo Studio.
  • Create new offers to existing products and create new catalog products to sell on Amazon.
  • Find new products to sell. Search with visual image match, text search or scanning bar codes. Check current prices, sales rank, competing offers, estimated profitability, and customer reviews.
  • Share the app with your team and have more attention on your business. User permissions set on Seller Central also apply in the app.

Selling Services on Amazon is the accompanying app for the Home Services marketplace:

With this app you can confirm appointments, complete jobs, receive custom service requests, communicate with customers, and much more.

Complete a job using this app, and you’re using the fastest, and surest way to get paid.

Another noteworthy B2B app, especially in light of the coming Whole Foods merger, is Amazon Restaurant Manager:

The Amazon Restaurant Manager app makes it easy for restaurant staff to manage Amazon food orders on an Android or Kindle Fire tablet. Use it to:

· Confirm incoming orders
· View your order history
· Refund orders
· Send test orders to train new staff

Amazon’s BuyVIP had its own mobile app until BuyVIP got shattered. Amazon’s daily deals service Amazon Local also had its own mobile app until it shut down in 2015. And there are far more apps on Amazon’s app graveyard. Quidsi’s Soap.com, for example, used to have an app as well.

Conclusion

Amazon’s main app may be cluttered and is home to far too many features, but Amazon, the company, is no single-app company. To the contrary, Amazon’s apps are legion. The sheer number and breadth of services Amazon’s mobile apps offer show why the online retailer wanted to own a popular mobile OS as well: They’re just doing a lot of very different things on mobile. Owning the OS would make many of these things far more easier. It would also have had opened more options for the future. But alas.

It is kind of tragic and funny at the same time: Amazon missed the mobile boat. The company today may not own a mobile operating system but it runs, by far, more mobile apps than Google or Apple, or maybe even both combined.

The next online retailer’s mobile app strategies we will be looking at are the strategies of Wish and Zalando.

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6 comments

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