For retailers, persuading consumers to download and use their mobile apps is the holy grail of online shopping. Not only do these users tend to (digitally) visit retailers more frequently, they're typically more loyal, too.
The problem? Only a small subset of shoppers has been willing to dedicate space on their smartphone or tablet to a retailer's application, let alone sit through the download time.
Despite these challenges, recent data show retail apps are finally starting to gain some ground. According to a new report from Sensor Tower, an app marketing intelligence firm, the number of iOS shopping app downloads during Black Friday week increased roughly 17 percent, to 5.82 million, over the same timeframe last year. That's up significantly from last year's growth rate of just 2 percent for that week.
Separately, a report by SimilarWeb, a digital analytics firm, found 24 major U.S. retailers saw an average 45 percent rise in active app use over six days starting Nov. 25.
"The growth is primarily due to the learnings and [work] a lot of the best retail companies have done over the last year or so," said Alex Malafeev, co-founder of Sensor Tower. "They've gotten a lot better at making the buying experience easier inside the mobile app."
According to Sensor Tower's data, Amazon was the biggest winner on Black Friday, with 209,000 consumers downloading its app on Apple iOS systems. That's up from just 61,000 new downloads on Black Friday last year.
Amazon led the pack even though it was working off a substantially larger user base, having received more than 35.4 million Apple iOS downloads since January 2012 — the most of any retailer, Sensor Tower said.
Wish, an app that helps shoppers find discounts on unbranded items, ranked second in terms of iOS downloads on Black Friday, with 62,000. Other retailers finishing in the top 10 were Wal-Mart, eBay and Cartwheel by Target.
Overall, major retailers have continued to invest in mobile app technologies, despite consumers' reluctance to adopt them. That's because the payoff for converting a shopper can be substantial.
According to a recent report by Forrester Research, 41 percent of U.S. smartphone users visited Amazon's mobile website during the second quarter — twice as many visitors as its mobile app received. But mobile app users visit the app 4.9 days per month, compared to 3.3 days per month for mobile site visitors.
What's more, shoppers who use a retailer's mobile app have already entered their preferred payment method, making it easier for them to complete transactions on the tiny devices.
Analysts have said the best way to get consumers to download a retail app is to provide them with an tool that enriches their shopping experience. Target, for example, allows shoppers to redeem special discounts through its Cartwheel app, while Wal-Mart this season gave app users an early peek at its Black Friday deals.
Wal-Mart predicts it will receive more than 210 million visits to its app in November and December, up from 18 million two years ago.
Still, retailers face significant headwinds in changing consumer behavior. Though people spend 85 percent of their time on phones in apps, Forrester notes the majority of that time is spent on only five apps.
What's more, only a small fraction of a retailer's mobile sales tend to come from its app. According to Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, on the high end, roughly 50 percent of a bricks-and-mortar retailer's mobile sales come from their app.
"Mobile shopping apps attract a smaller but more engaged audience," Forrester said in its report.