Where Are All The iPad Shopping Apps?

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For a tech company founder in San Francisco, I’m a terribly late adopter of new technology. My buddy in med school had a smart phone before I did. The iPhone was out for a year before I bought the 3G. The iPad? I’m embarrassed to admit, I got my first one a month ago.

I held out on the iPad because I didn’t get it. It didn’t have retina display, and comparing the screen after looking at the iPhone 4, it just seemed… pixelated. My friends who had the original version bought them as a novelty, which quickly seemed to wear off. I didn’t know what I would do with one once I had one.

So, when I finally buckled and got the iPad 3, I came to the realization that the rest of the world had over 2 years ago: the iPad is an amazing consumption device. You don’t need a keyboard, because if you’re doing any work at all it will be to send iPhone length one-liner emails. Most of what you’ll be doing on the iPad is playing games, watching videos and shopping.

There’s a plethora of iPad games, and you can download almost any movie or tv show from iTunes, but the shopping experience leaves a lot to be desired. When I first turned on the iPad, I went through and downloaded all the popular apps I recognized. In the shopping / ecommerce category, this was Gilt and Fab.

Both of these companies have amazing iPad experiences. For a while, I was browsing them every day; not because I actually needed to buy anything, but because I enjoyed the virtual window shopping experience of browsing through amazing photos of cool looking products. As any retailer knows, getting people in the store is half the battle, and pretty soon I was back to buying things off Gilt (when I had previously sworn off of it after their fulfillment sent me the wrong thing on multiple orders).

Inspired to find some shopping apps that weren’t flash sales sites, I simply couldn’t find any decent ones. All the apps for department stores and brands seemed like screenshots of their websites. In most of them, I couldn’t even purchase anything.

The ecommerce experience for iPad has been dominated by the deals sites because the deals sites are the only retailers heavily innovating on the technology side. That doesn’t have to be the case. The thing that makes a Gilt or Fab iPad app stand out is that they are extremely polished and conducive to casual browsing, which leads to serendipitous discovery and purchase. Also, they have a great excuse to bring you back in their “store” with a push notification every day — they have a new batch of inventory for you to check out.

Therere a couple other reasons iPads are natural platforms for ecommerce. On iPads shoppers are in a different state of mind (they are relaxing instead of being distracted with work or IM), and are more likely to make impulse purchases. Also, because of the high switching cost of opening up new tabs in Safari or switching between apps (when compared with a browser), a well designed app can keep users engaged for much longer than they would be on the web.

I think the next generation of ecommerce apps for iPad will focus less on the discounting and more on creating an amazing curated browsing experience. Recently, I got a preview build of an app called Monogram by founder Leo Chen (who I’m now advising), which does exactly that: curates collections of clothing from around the web, bringing the user a personalized boutique that updates every day with new outfit suggestions. Like Gilt, the emphasis on the app is about browsing and discovery. When I’m using apps like Monogram and Gilt, I find myself spending more time and browsing/buying more products than I ever do on the web. Apparently I’m not the only one.

A couple things I think this next generation of apps will have to figure out:

  1. Some way of differentiating their product inventory. Some will be vertically integrated companies that are bringing their own designs to market, like Everlane or Warby Parker. Others will focus on curation of existing products. I personally have been waiting for a store that curates the very best item I can own in every category, and tells me why it is the best.
  2. A great offline experience. Few companies in the ecommerce space have focused on innovating on what happens after you checkout with your shopping cart, and they all happen to be owned by Amazon (Amazon, Quidsi, Zappos). I believe there’s a lot of room to innovate in how products are packaged and delivered, and not many people are doing that at the moment.

Right now the iPad is like an entire country of 60 million consumers with only a few stores competing for their purchases. The denizens of iPadlandia are waiting to buy your awesome stuff. Why are you not letting them?