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Instant Apps: A Frictionless Future for Mobile Retail?

"There's an app for that," or so says the conventional wisdom. However, as retail knows all too well, shoppers rarely conform to conventional "wisdom." Unlike many other markets, retail has been challenged to secure consistent mobile app engagement. While people increasingly turn to apps for more of their online time, retail apps have failed to connect with consumers. Consider the following data points:

  • comScore reports that mobile platforms now represent 67% of our digital media minutes. Mobile apps are approaching 60% of our total digital time spent.
  • The same report indicates that smartphone apps account for 80% of all digital media growth in the past three years.
  • 39% of consumers surveyed by Forrester who have downloaded apps have only 1-2 retailer apps on their phone.
  • Forrester also reports that 21% of consumers who have downloaded apps have zero retailer apps on their phones.

Over the years, thought leaders have posited dozens of very credible theories as to why shoppers have resisted retail apps. Perceived challenges include complexity, threats to limited data capacity and shopper reluctance to download more than they want or need. These challenges all represent what I refer to as ‘friction' during the shopping journey: activities and circumstances that inhibit the execution of efficient, empowered and seamless experiences.

Through this narrative, I hope to present an argument that encourages retailers to get serious about overcoming these challenges. I hope to convince you to evaluate the possibilities inherent in Instant Apps: the new breed of mobile app experiences announced by Google earlier this year.

Retail can Fight Friction with Fast Access to Rich Content

Instant Apps will allow you to quickly use just a portion of an app's functionality without actually installing the entire app. Say, for example, you want to access content that is embedded within an app (think coupons, product videos, etc.). With Instant Apps,  when you click on the content's link, your phone will download only the code necessary to run the specific function you desire.

Let me say that another way. Shoppers can now access rich content, formerly confined to a downloadable app, in the browser, immediately. No more Play Store, no more "install" buttons. No more cluttering up your phone with apps you rarely use.

Shoppers can now access rich content, formerly confined to a downloadable app, in the browser, immediately. No more Play Store, no more "install" buttons, no more cluttering up their phone with apps they rarely use.

Retailers – and shoppers! – will finally be able to say goodbye to the friction that apps now represent. And we know how even a little friction can dramatically diminish conversions. Shoppers already burdened by too many choices, too little time, and severely compromised attention spans, now have zero tolerance for friction.

Remember the good old days (as in, a couple years ago), when we would talk about "failure" being the enemy of conversion? Well, forget about waiting for failure to send shoppers scurrying. Now all it takes is a little friction to send them packing.

Early Reviews are Promising

We haven't seen enough yet from Google to demonstrate that the functionality is ready for prime time. Nor have I been able to find a specific GA date.  Nonetheless, we have seen glimpses of the technology that show real promise for retail.

The video below, despite the choppy handheld photography (and the choppy trade show demo – who ever heard of such a thing!?!) shows how an Instant app could be put to work in a retail environment. Jump ahead to the 01:10 mark if you want to skip most of the chop. There you will see the demo guy shopping for a camera by perusing content that is embedded in the B&H app. And, as promised, instead of being required to download, install and open the B&H app, he is able to access the specific product content he desires – and the shopping cart – from his browser.

Pretty interesting, right?

Don't Fret Development Costs

Potentially even more interesting? Google has minimized the friction for developers as well. According to the Android Developers' Forum, adapting existing apps to be delivered as Instant Apps is relatively simple:

"Developers only need to maintain one project with one source tree. Developers then simply configure the project to create two build artifacts: the installable APK and the instant version. Some developers can take less than a day to get up and running..."

And I don't worry too much about the millions of iPhone shoppers that wouldn't be able to take advantage of this Android-only feature. By all accounts, Apple is also working on a similar technology. In iOS 9, Apple launched a feature they call app thinning, which tailors app delivery to the capabilities of the user's particular device. Only a fraction of the native app is downloaded before it's ready for use. Then the remainder of the app is downloaded as you use it. While not yet marketed as an Instant Apps competitor, thinning certainly appears to be a foundation for similar functionality.

Hope for A Frictionless Future

So, if I were running a retail IT shop, I might take a long hard look at the future of Instant Apps. At this point, they seem to support rich shopping experiences and make it easier to engage with shoppers. And, at least thus far, they don't seem unreasonably costly to implement and support. Which seems like a good thing to me.

Oh, and in addition to opening up all that rich, heretofore app-bound content to the browser, Instant Apps also open the possibility of using Android Pay to pay with a single tap as well—thus removing yet more friction from the retail shopping experience. Which is definitely a good thing.