It’s hard to talk about shopping these days without talking about fast-growing online merchants like Zappos, Warby Parker, Rue La La, and Wayfair. E-commerce is a big industry, and it keeps getting bigger: The Commerce Department says our online spending leapt 16 percent between 2010 and 2011, to almost $200 billion.
That’s a massive number, until you realize that it still doesn’t represent even 5 percent of total retail spending.
Two local companies are trying to influence the way that remaining 95 percent happens, with mobile apps designed to assist with shopping in the offline world. But changing the deeply ingrained habits of the 21st century’s mall-roving hunter-gatherers won’t be simple.
The better-funded of the pair, Swirl Networks, raised $6 million earlier this year, from investors including SoftBank Capital in Newton, Longworth Venture Partners of Waltham, and Cambridge’s General Catalyst. Michael Rubin, the majority owner of Rue La La, is also a backer, and several of Swirl’s earliest employees came from Rue, the Boston company that helped pioneer time-limited “flash sales” of trendy clothes online. Swirl’s founder, Hilmi Ozguc, was an early entrant into online advertising and delivering video over the Internet. His last company, Maven Networks, was acquired by Yahoo for $160 million.
The Swirl app can be downloaded free from Apple’s iTunes Store (for non-iPhoners, the service can also be accessed on the company’s website.) Based on your gender, it serves up images of clothes and accessories. You can select stuff you like, ask your Facebook friends for their input, and save items for later reference into different collections (like “Weekend Style” or “At the Office”). As with everything these days, people can “follow” one another, viewing each other’s picks.
But the app’s most useful feature, at least for a cheapskate like me, is that it invites you to create a list of your favorite clothing stores, and then it can alert you to their current sales. Up to 40 percent off at Hugo Boss? That’s enough to get me in the door.
“Most clothing retail is still physical because people need to go to stores to try things on,” says Ozguc. “But we think that being armed with smart devices is going to change shopping.”
And Ozguc is betting is that it is unlikely we will open up a Gap app when we’re in that store, and a Nordstrom app when we shop there. He’s trying to position Swirl as the sole shopping app you’ll need.
“We’re trying to create a personal assistant who knows you, and where you like to shop,” he says, likening it to the way the Pandora online music service quickly learns your taste in tunes. Swirl’s database includes 32,000 store locations and a catalog of 100,000 different clothing items. Before long, Ozguc says, the app may start suggesting which purses go with which shoes and which blazers look good with which pants.
He says that it’s still too early to talk about the specifics of the company’s business model, but that the first step to making money will be assembling a big enough collection of users and delivering marketing messages to them.
The other app is Kickscout. A beta version is available for Android phones, and founder Michael Sheeley says an iPhone version will be out soon. So far, Sheeley has been funding Kickscout’s development himself. The Chelmsford resident was cofounder of FitnessKeeper, the Boston company that created the wildly popular RunKeeper app for tracking one’s workouts.
Kickscout’s aim is to help you share items you see in stores with friends. Perhaps it is a rare antique, something you’d like to receive as a birthday gift, or an item being sold at a remarkable discount. You can share your finds with Facebook friends, and even accept payment for an item they want you to pick up on their behalf.
Testing out the app recently at a Best Buy and REI, I found it a bit painstaking to enter all the data Kickscout wanted — store name, item description, price, etc. — and also snap a photo. One item I “scouted” was a $94 wooden balance bike for my young son. It seemed like it might be simpler to just snap a photo and send it via text to anyone who’d really care, like my wife.
Megan Capone, a Dracut resident who runs the blog A Girl Must Shop, tested out both apps recently. She found Kickscout still a bit rough, but said Swirl was “helpful and easy to use. It reminds me of Pinterest” — a site that lets users create collections of things they like — “but it steps further than that to help you find an item nearby, see if it’s on sale, or call the store to check if they have it in inventory.”
To build up a user base, both Swirl and Kickscout will have to break through the increasingly crowded shelves of the Android and iPhone app stores. “It used to be that you could release an app and get thousands of downloads with very little effort,” says Greg Raiz, who runs a Brookline app development firm. But these days, “releasing an app involves some coordination of PR, social media, e-mail campaigns, and advertising,” he says. Often, new apps try to attract users by buying advertising within older mobile apps that have already attained popularity.
So just as retailers continually have to solve the riddle of what it takes to lure shoppers across their thresholds, Boston’s retail app developers will have to figure out what it takes to spur millions of downloads.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.