For Holiday Shopping, Mobile Apps Bring Out My Inner Grinch

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Editor’s Note: Semil Shah works on product for Swell, is a TechCrunch columnist, and an investor. He blogs at Haywire, and you can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

Every week for this column, I write about something related to mobile technology or apps. It would be only natural, then, for me to devote at least one column to the intersection of mobile and commerce, especially during such a festive time of year. I’ll state upfront that I don’t particularly love the hecticness of holiday shopping — the overcrowded stores, the same holiday songs on an endless playback loop, and the quintessential Black Friday stampedes. As I result, I try to take care of all shopping online. If you’re reading this, you probably feel the same way. Up to this year, I’d complete 99% of shopping via Amazon, but this holiday season, I wanted to see what the state of consumer mobile apps were on the market. The result, I must admit, brought out my inner “Grinch.”

Now, in this year-end season of “Best Of” linkbait articles, it would simply be routine for me to list out “The Best Mobile Shopping Apps of 2013 (Besides Amazon and eBay).” The only problem with this approach, however, is that I’m not confident enough native apps exist to actually fill out a list. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, “Wait, what about Etsy, Gilt, Jetsetter, Fancy, Fab, Threadflip, Poshmark, and so many more?” Yes, I’ve tried them all, and I will admit, they’re all quite good in their own way, but something about the overall experience, for me personally, is just not quite right for holiday shopping. Perhaps it’s the limited screen size of a mobile device, or the lack of excitement at a flash sale for branded goods, or the inability to test the texture and quality of a non-branded item, or the checkout experience — whatever it may be, mobile certainly affords convenience to  holiday shopping , but I didn’t find any apps which created a new shopping experience.

For those who know exactly what they want, the Amazon and eBay mobile apps likely provide 90% coverage, which may  be why the rest of the shopping apps contain some discovery mechanism, either through a vertical approach, curation, or marketplace dynamics. I won’t be a Grinch for the entire post, as I do have a heart — at times. The Etsy app is fantastic for finding unique items in an age when every family member could likely  receive the same suite of gifts courtesy of Amazon Prime. I’ve heard female friends remark they’re addicted to the shopping experiences inside Threadflip and Poshmark, and these companies’ growing stats seem to verify those claims. I’ve used Jetsetter and Gilt for a while, but those properties often surface branded items which I already know about at discounted prices. I tried to get into Fab and Fancy, and while these apps are beautifully designed, I found them to provide information without enough context or, frankly, to serve up items that sometimes feel could be 50-100x marked up in price. This is just me, perhaps it works for the majority of folks.

My Grinchy critiques aside, I know legions of others are likely to disagree with me. I don’t blame them. These apps I’ve cited above are all very good, especially when one factors in the reality that a good portion of larger, billion-dollar retail franchises produce and ship outdated or unusable native apps — or worse, don’t even have native apps at all. I was surprised to learn this, that multi-billion dollar companies with consumer commerce business models haven’t invested in native mobile experiences.

And, well, this is why I wrote this post, ultimately, because I believe with all tricky little issues around mobile e-commerce, the business model risks associated with them (inventory risk, thin margins, and low valuation multiples), and the few incumbent native apps in this category,  big opportunities remain for designers and developers to create entirely new shopping experiences that go beyond convenience and Instagram-feed-like image-based discovery. Etsy, Poshmark, and Threadflip are a step in a new direction, a direction I welcome. Maybe by next holiday season, those new apps will have arrived, or existing ones will create more holiday-specific experiences as the year ends. Or by next next year, wireless beacons in retail stores may help augment in-store offerings in creative ways. Who knows, but what I do know is it’s so early, and I’m 100% certain next year someone will breakthrough with another offering that is not Amazon or eBay, and I can’t wait to try it out. Happy Holidays to all of you, and happy shopping, too!

Photo Credit: Sarah Ackerman / Flickr Creative Commons