Product and Engineering Trends in Mobile Shopping Apps

Modern-day retail is going through a massive shift.

Advancements in technology — especially on mobile — are changing how we shop. For eCommerce and retail companies, the only way to engage customers, in the long run, is by creating intuitive, flawless, and enjoyable mobile shopping experiences that go beyond a single purchase. ‍ In this article, we’ll dive into the latest trends in mobile shopping, and explore the cutting-edge features and mobile engineering practices used by the world’s leading shopping apps. ‍ What you’ll learn:

  • What are the main drivers behind the ecommerce industry’s record growth in the past few years?
  • How are leading retail companies embracing digital transformation and keep up with changing consumer behavior?
  • What are the cutting-edge features that are giving the top shopping apps a competitive advantage?
  • Why does speed matter so much in shopping apps and how can you accelerate your mobile development processes?
  • Which Mobile DevOps processes are allowing teams to release quickly and confidently, and minimize the causes of lost revenue?
Product and Engineering Trends in Mobile Shopping Apps

Content Summary

Introduction
Methodology
Ecommerce & mobile shopping industry overview
Record growth in the past two years
Mobile now dominates e-commerce spend
Online shopping vs. physical stores
Mobile app vs. webshop?
Why do apps perform better?
The state of mobile engineering in shopping
The top 10 iOS shopping apps in the US
Release cadence
The notable tech of the top 10 shopping apps
Payment providers
Cutting-edge trends in shopping app design
Voice shopping
Mobile payments
Augmented reality: bringing the in-store experience to in-home
Minimizing revenue loss through Mobile DevOps
Preventing lost revenue
The need for speed
Code freezes and their role in preventing lost revenue
The pros and cons of the code freeze
How to prevent and recover from bad releases
Key takeaways

Introduction

Modern-day retail is going through a massive shift and, as a result, the eCommerce industry is booming. Advancements in technology — especially on mobile — are changing how we shop. Today, more than ever, we have the option to not only virtually browse a shop’s full range of products but mimic aspects of the in-store experience — such as trying on clothes — using augmented reality. Or even enhance them — by allowing customers to place items of furniture in the home, for example.

It does not come as a surprise that by now, 79% of digital minutes in the US are spent on mobile and 88% of that time is spent in mobile apps.

To keep up with changing consumer behavior, retailers have to embrace digital technologies. For eCommerce companies, the only way to engage customers, in the long run, is by creating intuitive, flawless, and enjoyable mobile shopping experiences that go beyond a single purchase.

In this article, we will dive into the latest trends of the eCommerce scene, focusing on mobile shopping. We explain why the retail industry has been going through a digital transformation, and provide valuable product and engineering insights gathered from some of the world’s top shopping apps.

Methodology

To bring you this report, our researchers analyzed the shopping app category — with data provided byApptopia — in the iOS US App Store. For our analysis, the top apps analyzed were based on App Store category rank, with download figures from the last 30 days (7th August 2021 – 6th September 2021).

Other facts and figures are based on a broad range of reports and studies, and sources are provided throughout.

Ecommerce & mobile shopping industry overview

Key trends, main players, and how changing consumer behavior is fueling digital transformation

Record growth in the past two years

When it comes to business expansion and revenue, the eCommerce industry has experienced unprecedented growth in the past two years:

  • Ecommerce vaulted ten years ahead in consumer and business digital penetration in less than three months in early 2020. (see figure)
  • Global mobile commerce revenue of the first two months of 2020 was nearly $600 billion more than the figure for the whole year 2019.

US ecommerce penetration, %

Sources: Retail reimagined, McKinsey; Top 5 Mobile Commerce Trends During Covid-19 Pandemic

Mobile now dominates ecommerce spend

For years, mobile has been a key player in online purchases but it’s become especially prominent since Covid-19: new consumer needs for contactless ways of shopping has drastically increased due to lockdowns around the world, further strengthening the importance of mobile. The future of mobile commerce is bright:

  • Mobile as a share of ecommerce spend has reached a size of 3.56 trillion in 2021, representing 72.9% of total ecommerce spend.
  • Global market worth is expected to reach $6.6 trillion by 2027, with a compound annual growth rate of 19.8%.
Mobile As A Share Of Total Ecommerce Spend

Online shopping vs. physical stores

As a result of this shift, the status of department stores has become less secure: malls experienced declining traffic even before COVID-19, but lockdowns and stay-at-home orders represent an unprecedented threat to traditional retail.

In the past 18 months, several iconic US-based retail giants filed for bankruptcy, such as:

  • J.Crew May 2020
  • J.C. Penney May 2020
  • Neiman Marcus May 2020
  • G-star July 2020
  • Brooks Brothers July 2020

On the other hand, there are several types of companies profiting from changing tendencies in customer behavior, such as:

  • Grocery shopping, such as Walmart, Costco, Target — especially companies innovating in same-day delivery and in-store pickup.
  • Second-hand shopping: Vinted, Vestiaire Collective, orWallapop that promote cost-saving and circular economy.
  • Brands who create innovative experiences, such as augmented reality on mobile, for example IKEA, Nike, Warby Parker, or Sephora.
  • Mobile-first companies, such as rewards, coupons, & mobile gift card providers.

Mobile app vs. webshop?

Shopping on mobile can happen in two ways: either on mobile websites or in mobile apps. When it comes to converting users, mobile apps are a powerful driver. According to a report, App advantages over mobile browsers, smartphone users spend 7x more time in native apps than in browsers and they purchase more frequently within the apps, as well.

  • On average, people spend 3 hours and 40 minutes using their mobile devices each day and only 10% of that time is spent on a mobile web browser.
  • When comparing numbers of products that were viewed, added to basket, and purchased in mobile browsers vs. in mobile apps, apps had a 130% higher total conversion rate.
Global Retail Conversion Funnel, by Channel

Why do apps perform better?

  • Apps have a headstart when it comes to providing the features and functionalities for the flawless experience mobile shoppers require.
  • Mobile apps can save user data and offering in-app, one-click payments, making the whole checkout process faster and easier.
  • Consequently, mobile apps have a significantly lower shopping cart abandonment rate, compared to desktop and web apps.

20% Shopping Cart abandonment in Mobile Apps

68% Shopping Cart abandonment in Desktop Sites

97% Shopping Cart abandonment in Mobile Sites

In short: investing in an app pays off

  • Mobile apps allow for enhanced UX, more features, and functionalities, such as push notifications, special discounts, or saved preferences, and offer a less frustrating payment process — as a result, they have higher engagement, conversion, and retention rates.
  • Apps provide a personalized and enjoyable shopping experience, which enables companies to increase ROI, strengthen brand awareness, and build a long-term relationship with customers.

The state of mobile engineering in shopping

Key Mobile DevOps insights from the leading shopping apps

The top 10 iOS shopping apps in the US

The top 10 iOS shopping apps in the US

Data from Apptopia, correct as of September 7th, 2021 (note: App Store rankings frequently fluctuate

Release cadence

Release cadence — or how often a new version of an app is released to the App Store — says a lot about a team’s Mobile DevOps maturity.

Looking at the top 10 shopping apps in the US, we see that the average release cadence is 9.8 days. The quickest is Walmart, with an incredible 5 days between releases, while the longest is Amazon, with a comparatively plodding 15 days.

And the further down the charts you go, the longer the average release cadence becomes: for the top 91-100 shopping apps, as a comparison, the average is 30.8 days if we’re including Hobby Lobby, which updates their app every five months on average. Exclude Hobby Lobby, and we find a 17.6-day average — still relatively quick, but almost half as quick as the top 10 and a long way from ideal.

Release cadence of the top 10 iOS shopping apps in the US

While this data doesn’t tell us that more releases cause higher rankings, it does mean that the more successful an app, the more likely it is the team behind it has adopted a quick-release cadence.

The notable tech of the top 10 shopping apps

Of the three cross-platform frameworks evident, React Native is the most popular (40%), followed by Cordova and Flutter, both used by one app each.

70% of the top 10 use Apple’s UI framework, Swift UI, showing that it’s being widely adopted.

Augmented reality (AR), a key technology that we’ll be discussing later, is being utilized by 50% of the top 10 — with the two notable expectations being SHEIN and Adidas CONFIRMED. Adidas, however, does use AR on their main app.

Notable SDK of the top 10 iOS shopping apps (US)

Payment providers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority (70%) of the top 10 utilized Apple’s PassKit Wallet to handle payments — four of the top 10 (Amazon, SHEIN, Target, and Etsy) used PassKit Wallet exclusively.

Nike is unique in implementing two Chinese payment providers: WeChat Pay and AliPay. While not the only app in this list to be available in China, Nike has by far the largest Chinese audience, with 3.93M downloads in China this year-to-date (second only to the US with 6.465M downloads), and is the 24th most popular iOS shopping app in China.

Of the top 10 iOS shopping apps in China, 9/10 use either WeChat Pay or AliPay so if you want an app to be a success in a particular market: implement local payment providers.

% of apps using SDK

Innovation is crucial to stay ahead with a mobile-first shopping crowd

Voice shopping

Gone are the days when users only used virtual assistants (VAs), like Siri and Alexa, to set a cooking timer. A survey of 1,081 Americans from CouponFollow found that 60.3% used VAs at least a few times per week and 39.1% were “very likely” to shop using a virtual assistant.

Asos, as always ahead on digital trends, launched their assistant (or “fashion bot”) Enki back in 2018 to help shoppers find new styles and (crucially) shortlist or purchase items recommended.

Which features and commands should be prioritized? According to the survey, these were the top five commands:

  1. Browsing for new products
  2. Performing a product search
  3. Creating shopping lists
  4. Searching for product reviews
  5. Purchasing products

Mobile payments

Poor checkouts are traditionally where a significant amount of friction is to be found in eCommerce (one study showed that the average shopping cart abandonment rate for eCommerce sites is 65.23%) and this is just as true for mobile. The key is to make it quick and simple. And if users are already on their phones, why not integrate with their phone’s built-in payment system?

Using Apple Pay and Google Pay also allows you to create a richer omnichannel experience through integrating digital wallets for loyalty or reward cards, for example.

According to Statista, in September 2020 there were 507 million Apple Pay users worldwide, a 15% increase over the previous year

7 of the top 10 iOS shopping apps in the US have already integrated the Apple PassKitWallet SDKs. – Source: Apptopia SDK data, September 2021

Mobile buyers are increasingly using mobile apps/web instead of QR Codes/Tap to Pay, likely due to COVID-19

Comscore’s Emerging Digital Payments Advisor found that 60% of smartphone purchases in 2020 were via mobile apps.
Source: 2020 Global State of Mobile

Augmented reality: bringing the in-store experience to in-home

When it comes to augmented reality, few industries benefit more than those where styling is involved.

There’s no doubt that lockdowns accelerated the adoption of extended reality (AR & VR) tech.

For example, brands like IKEA are making use of LiDAR technology in the latest Apple devices to bring unprecedented levels of accuracy when it comes to placing objects in the home.

This year alone, IKEA Place has been downloaded 437.41K times across iOS and Android worldwide.

Get inspired — here are four fantastic examples for seeing how to effectively implement shopping AR:

  • IKEA Place: Probably one of the best examples of accurate 3D modelling: choose items from the catalogue and model them in the home.
  • Sephora: Sephora’s “Visual Artist” allows users to try on products in real-time. Thanks to well-implemented tech, virtual products line-up correctly as the user moves their face in front of the camera.
  • Adidas: Similar to Sephora’s functionality, the Adidas app allows users to try on shoes in real-time — all to bring the in-store experience to mobile.
  • John Lewis & Partners: Rather than visualize products from across the entire catalogue, John Lewis focus on one particularly tricky purchase: sofas — allowing shoppers to model sofas (and armchairs) in their own home.

Minimizing revenue loss through Mobile DevOps

The importance of performance and processes in an unforgiving space

Preventing lost revenue

In eCommerce, every lost user is lost revenue. According to Google, 52% of users said a “bad mobile experience made them less likely to engage with a company.”

In a sector where users can be fickle, and where a shop needs to be able to cope with the ebbs and flows of demand, preventative measures need to be taken.

In this section, we will introduce three key topics in preventing lost revenue:

  1. Speed & performance
  2. The pros & cons of code freezes
  3. Recovering from bad releases

The need for speed

A lengthy load time on a mobile device is just as inconvenient as waiting in line at a store. We love using our phones because they are fast. If a user has to wait around for your mobile app to load or process their payment they’ll most likely leave the app without making the purchase.

29% of smartphone users will immediately switch to another site or app if it doesn’t satisfy their needs (e.g. they can’t find information or it’s too slow). – Source: Consumers in the Micro-movement,Wave 3, Google /Ipsos, U.S. August 2015, n=1291 online smartphone users 18+

Not only does having a performant app prevent users from leaving, but Google’s Play Store will also downrank apps that load more slowly and feature more bugs. While Apple hasn’t explicitly stated the same, we know that poor UX results in poor reviews, and reviews are a key indicator for both Apple and Google.

What should you be looking for when it comes to improving app performance? Gergely Orosz, in his e-book “Building Mobile Apps at Scale” (download the free Bitrise version), refers to the following bottlenecks:

  • App startup time bloating
  • Too many parallel networking calls
  • Networking performance
  • Battery consumption rate
  • Application not responding states
  • Frozen frames and slow rendering frames
  • Animations & UI rendering performance

Code freezes and their role in preventing lost revenue

What’s a code freeze?
The end-of-year shopping period puts enormous pressure on product teams and developers. For this reason, many teams decide to implement a code freeze shortly before the season begins. This means that to ensure 100% uptime and avoid unexpected bugs and crashes resulting in a potential loss of revenue, they stop releasing code to production, usually until the end of the holiday season.

Are code freezes necessary?
Even though they are often scrutinized, holiday code freezes are still popular in mobile shopping app development — both on iOS and Android — in an attempt to minimize potential risks and ensure app stability during this high-traffic period. These days, however, high-performing, agile teams are finding new ways to tackle the increased traffic during the shopping season, without having to stop releases for several weeks. According to a recent report, Peak Traffic 2020, companies that are less than 2 years old — hence, more tech-forward — were the least likely to implement a code freeze (50%), as opposed to almost all (92%) companies older than 25 years. This can be explained by young companies’ willingness to adopt a combination of agile mindsets, methodologies, and modern toolsets.

The pros and cons of the code freeze

Many factors determine whether a code freeze is right for your team. Here are some of the main things you should consider before you make your decision:

Pros:

  • “Freezing the version before Black Friday does bring benefits: it ensures that the version is stable, scalable, and operational to guarantee the best UX.
  • Code freezing around the shopping season is a valid approach for sustaining customer interaction on the platform, which positively impacts revenue.” — Raiza Batista, QA Engineer at PagSeguro UOL
  • “Shopping season traffic is always very high, so efforts are targeted at maintaining performance and preventing downtime. Any new deployment can cause disruption, any downtime can cause a drastic drop in traffic, which has a direct effect on revenue and brand image.” — Ayodeji Ayankola, iOS Engineer at Konga Online Shopping

Cons:

  • An upcoming code freeze means a major deadline for developers: everyone wants to get their features to go through the CI/CD pipeline before the freeze hits, which can easily result in rushed — hence poorly tested — releases.
  • Creating an arbitrary deadline introduces inherent risks — and can potentially make the system more unstable, once the code freeze ends and developers start shipping code again.
  • The longer this process takes, the more commits will the next release have, making it more error-prone.
  • When something does go wrong in a future iteration, pointing to the root cause of the issue will likely be much harder as well.

How to prevent and recover from bad releases

When it comes to preventing lost revenue, code freezing is just one option. Here are some of the best practices to prevent bad releases from happening in the first place and to quickly recover when they do:

Prevention
The state of mobile shopping apps 24/27 The first step to reducing the impact of bad releases is to prevent them from occurring altogether. The following practices enable teams to release with confidence:

  • Mobile-specific CI/CD helps streamline build, test, and deployment processes that are unique to mobile development.
  • Automated testing, such as UI, unit, and real device testing, as well using simulators can help prevent faulty releases and dramatically increase the app’s performance.
  • Using feature flags allows for better control and reduces the risk of each code change, thus helps make releases safer.

Recovery
You have a speedy app that is stable and free of bugs. You test, test, and test some more. But the worst inevitably happens: you release a bad version of the app to the stores. Here are the essentials of recovery:

  • APM solutions help diagnose deep-level app performance problems by monitoring different metrics, such as load times; and computational resources like CPU, or memory that the app is consuming. And crucially: they help you quickly identify the source.
  • Crash reports can show which versions are affected and determine the app’s stability level and responsiveness, as well.
  • Having a release train — as well as allowing you to adopt faster release cycles — makes it easier for you to revert to the last stable release.

Key takeaways

  1. The ecommerce industry has seen record growth in the past two years — vaulting ten years ahead in the first months of 2020 — due to changing consumer behavior and increased need for contactless shopping.
  2. Mobile apps dominate online sales: Mobile as a share of ecommerce spend has reached a size of 3.56 trillion in 2021, representing 72.9% of total ecommerce spend. It is largely thanks to their ability to provide a seamless experience with features like AR, one-click payments, saved preferences, and more.
  3. Release frequency strongly correlates with app store ranking — the top 10 highest-ranking apps have an average release frequency of 9.8 days.
  4. Mobile commerce teams have to be especially mindful of how tooling and processes can prevent lost revenue through improving user experience and release confidence: 29% of users immediately abandon their purchase if they are not happy with the app.