The Rise And Fall Of Price Comparison Apps - How To Avoid A Similar Fate

Understanding the mobile consumer has never been more important than it is now. According to research conducted by the Pew Internet Project, the majority of American adults own a mobile device. Ninety percent of adults own a cell phone, while 58% own a smartphone, and 42% own a tablet. It’s no surprise that as more people plunge into the mobile world, we are seeing a shift in how they are using mobile devices. 

An annual consumer survey that has evaluated holiday mobile commerce trends for the last three years concludes that the mobile purchase journey is becoming more complex. People are using multiple digital devices across multiple platforms to achieve desired results. Data shows they want a hassle-free way of searching and obtaining information quickly.

Comprehension of mobile behaviors is rapidly evolving, and companies within certain industries such as service industries (hotels, airports, transportation, etc.), are successfully etching out niche markets for smartphones versus tablets or desktop. Consider how people order Uber. How many times do you see people order Uber from their cell or smartphone compared to using a tablet or desktop? Convenience is king. Simple services -- such as receiving a smartphone notification that one’s room is ready -- are not only convenient -- they mean more freedom to do other things versus waiting in a hotel lobby hoping the front desk remembers to say something.

Apps That Clash With Mobile Behaviors

A deeper look into price comparison apps and mobile consumer behavior may reveal why these apps have not enjoyed more widespread adoption. A few years ago, price comparison apps were the latest buzz. The likes of RedLaser, ShopSavvy, PriceGrabber, and TheFind were designed to empower consumers with information that enabled them to price-compare their favorite products with the hopes of saving time and money. Meant to make lives easier, these apps could mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful gift-giving extravaganza during the holidays -- especially for frantic shoppers on a mission to find the right product, the right deal, at the right location, and at the right time.

If use of these apps delivered so much added convenience as hyped, why haven’t more people downloaded them? Are scores of people scanning barcodes in stores and at malls? Are quick-response codes as popular in advertisements and promotional campaigns as they once were when they launched?

Several factors could be preventing more people from downloading price comparison apps, including:

Complications with Functionality – App reviews reveal that some price comparison apps have issues with scanning in barcodes. Reviewers vent their frustrations, saying they have to manually enter barcode numbers. So much for time and convenience. Others complain that sales posters, which look like ads, get in the way of ease of use. 

Travel Time – An app might locate a product that is cheaper somewhere else, but that means additional travel time. During the holiday rush, driving a few miles in some areas could turn into a painful 45-minute headache. 

Stock Quantities – Several apps may not display accurate inventory. If a person takes the risk to hunt down a better deal in another store, the last thing he/she wants to hear is “sorry, we’re out of that product.” That’s a big time- and money-waster.

No State Tax Calculation – For cities that span several states, the tax rate can vary greatly, impacting the final cost. 

In-store Price GuaranteesWalmart, Best Buy, and several other merchants offer in-store price beats with proof of a lower advertised price. Some policies are specific about the stores they match, while others do not accept prices from third-party seller sites that display on some comparison apps. In addition, if an app identifies a better price at another store, is the potential savings worth a trip to secure the ad needed to get the price match approved? The choice comes down to time spent versus money saved. 

Mobile Coupons Don’t Count – Some of the price comparison apps do not take into consideration mobile coupon offers. The price could potentially be even lower than what appears on the screen.

Carrier Data Charges – App usage requires a lot of data resources. People who have limited data plans might not want to take the chance of incurring additional charges on their monthly bill.

These challenges may be what are keeping many of these apps from topping the app ratings charts.

None of the discussed price-comparison apps consistently make the top 10 charts. The exception is Walmart, which has built its reputation on low pricing and leveraged its strong brand equity and loyal customer base to launch a chart-topping app that includes a price comparison tool called Savings Catcher.

The use of the price comparison app becomes a question of time and money. How much time will it take to track down the cheapest deal, and is the money saved worth the trouble? Is the app easy enough to use, and does it provide enough value to look beyond some of its reported shortcomings?

Looking Into The Mobile Journey

Referring back to the annual mobile consumer survey, one aspect that makes consumer purchase journeys complex is device piggybacking. If a family wants to purchase a 46-inch TV, for example, they might start a search on the desktop because it’s easier to browse. They might go into the store to see the product up close then set up a text alert when the price drops. Alternatively, they may talk with a customer service representative, order through the computer, and pick it up at the store. Shoppers want to save the maximum amount of money using the least amount of time, and they’ll use mobile in whatever way facilitates those goals.

An April 2014 study from eMarketer reports that the average time U.S. adults spend per day using mobile for non-voice-related activities -- such as SMS, email, taking photos or playing a game -- has grown from 24 minutes in 2010 to 2 hours and 19 minutes. A study from Salesforce also reports that email and text checking were the most popular activities to perform on mobile at least once a day, while email and searching for information online were most popular for tablet users.

People are using their mobile phone for quick tasks, short searches, brief references, and entertainment on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and the like. The Pew Research Center reports that people who used their cell phone and smartphone in the last 30 days used them for what they call “just in time” activities, such as setting up a meeting, solving an unexpected problem, finding information to settle an argument and deciding whether to visit a particular business, like a restaurant. People want to find the right information at the right time.

The premise behind price comparison apps lends itself to added convenience for consumers, however, the lack of adoption reveals they have missed the mark adapting to customers’ needs.

What Makes Apps Desirable?

Price comparison apps might not be alone in their failure to meet consumer standards. For the last two years, people said they preferred using mobile apps over mobile sites. However, according to the mobile commerce survey, that trend reversed this year. Sixty-three percent of those asked said they preferred mobile sites over mobile apps.

When asked what would encourage people to download a mobile app, respondents said they valued speed even over receiving special offers. They also said “ease of finding products” make mobile shopping much more enjoyable. The data and mobile behavior tells all; speed and simplicity are critical characteristics mobile consumers value.

Building for the Customer

The way people use mobile is changing as their needs for information are changing. Apps that are complicated, out of date, and that don’t provide enough of or the right kinds of information are doomed to fail. Companies have an opportunity to encourage growth in online spending and improve customer engagement by incorporating value-add features into their mobile apps and Web sites that streamline the online buying experience. By taking the time to understand customer needs and motivations, and by re-evaluating mobile strategy in the larger context of what the entire digital landscape has to offer, businesses can benefit from richer, deeper, and more profitable customer relationships.


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