Taking Shopify Mobile - A guide to native eCommerce applications

By Liam Quinn - 12 April, 2021
Liam Quinn 2021

In this definitive guide Technical Ecommerce Consultant, Liam Quinn demonstrates how brands are shifting from a web-browser based mobile experience to a native application using Shopify.

I’ve seen a bit of a growing trend in the past ~6 months, with more brands looking at how best to extend their Shopify store from solely a browser-based experience and into mobile more natively. Or similar, looking at integrating their ecommerce store into a native app using Shopify. It may be sheer coincidence, or a change in the types of brands now making the move to Shopify - but there has been a noticeable growth towards a multi-platform strategy.

The increasing demand for Shopify-powered native apps

The use cases we have been involved with or have spoken with recently, vary quite significantly. Ranging from a completely new build native mobile application to creating a niche marketplace and looking to use Shopify as the underlying ecommerce engine - to an established brand on Shopify with a large inventory and loyal customer base, looking to extend their offering and drive a retention strategy through an app. And somewhere in between, a widely used health & fitness product looking to integrate Shopify into their existing mobile application, to grow subscription plan options and initial purchase & registration.

Despite these three examples being completely different on the face of it, there are commonalities which made all three viable for looking at mobile app functionality.

The benefits of developing a mobile app

The fundamental benefit that linked all three was increased engagement. Via ongoing interaction between merchant & customer, and/or building up an engaging community. If there is an established loyal community around the brand (or a good opportunity to create one) and the ability to grow attention beyond the point of simply looking to buy - then it could be a good opportunity. A good example of this would be something like [Discogs], where selling vinyl is almost secondary functionality alongside the community discussing & discovering new products. Another one being, if ongoing interaction between the brand and the customer is key such as the [Joe Wicks Bodycoach] style checking-in throughout the 90 days following the subscription, being part of the overall product.

I have been involved in plenty of discussions over time that ultimately ended in strongly recommending against the app route. Simply recreating the webstore as an app with no additional purpose behind it will usually result in wasted budget, there needs to be an additional hook in order to get customers onto and using the app. The idea should be to extend their interaction with the brand, not simply replace the platform where their attention is. Elements like push notifications or native performance are big positives, but these alone are rarely enough for it to be a worthwhile investment. But the push in building communities around brands, combined with more options becoming available to get a mobile app presence to market, means it is a conversation that is increasingly worth having. 

How a native app would work with your Shopify Plus store

The key to any successful solution of integrating your Shopify store into a mobile application is the API suite. Everything from account logins, displaying the product range, adding to cart etc would all be handled via a set of API connections to your store (or stores, multi-store architecture needs to be really considered here). This is very much not Shopify-specific, the same solutions could be achieved with integrations to other eCommerce platforms. However this seems to be much more common on Shopify stores because the ecosystem of apps and integrators are much better placed, the documentation is by far the most accessible and usable, and the available SDKs meaning some of the groundwork is already in place.

Different strategies / approaches to optimising mobile customer experience

There are a few different approaches that could be considered, depending on requirements and budget. The following are some of the options we’ve used and would recommend looking into, and the scenarios in which it would be suitable: 

Shop App

Shop App

OK this one isn’t the most exciting for the first recommendation, but it is worth having a place in the conversation. Before any budget allocation goes into selling from mobiles natively, it is worth being clear on what your Shopify subscription entitles you to, out of the box. If the aim is simply to be selling products in more places, more conveniently - then this could be a good starting point and the role and value of Shop is likely to increase over time. It’s as straightforward as enabling the functionality from your Shopify admin and apparently has seen conversion rates increase by 18% for returning customers to a business.

Shops you follow

For next to no effort, your store will be listed on what is essentially a shoppable directory of brands - currently installed by > 16 million users. This will provide your customers a streamlined buying journey and accelerated checkout experience. It’s also potentially a great way to be discovered by people who aren’t your customers yet. The final thing to note is that this was only released May 2020, so is currently still in its infancy. 

This was unveiled to great fanfare by Shopify, so will continue to add new features and functionality on what is very likely to be a roadmap to something much bigger than its current state. 

Tapcart

TapCart - Home

The next suggestion is a solution we’ve been working on with a client to implement, and to push it’s limits with the aim of achieving a best-in-class example of the product. Tapcart is a Shopify App that combines pagebuilder functionality with API’s into your store & third parties, to create a Native Mobile App for your brand. If your objective is increased brand recognition and visibility, then you’ll likely need the ability to be listed on the Apple & Google Play stores which is the major benefit here. 

You can also incorporate the brand moreso than your Shop App instance would, with the pagebuilder allowing for richer content throughout the browsing experience. Further to this, integrations into a lot of your shopify apps or third party services mean things like Shoppable Instagram Feeds, product reviews and live chat can be connected. Similarly important aspects like your merchandised search results, configured filtering, subscription or loyalty schemes can all connect via Integrations with: Yotpo, Nosto, Algolia, ReCharge, Klaviyo and others [https://tapcart.com/integrations].

The Bottle Club - TapCart

The downside to Tapcart is that again it is relatively new, so not all of your web stores integrations will be available to use within the app. Without careful consideration you could end up being subscribed to multiple Shopify apps that are doing the same job, on different platforms. It’s also a bit rigid in the way it looks, in terms of navigation and collection browsing. However, there is a lot on the roadmap for Tapcart including an SDK later in the year opening up the API’s, which will bring with it a lot more flexibility. In the right context this is a very good option, and we’ve been seeing impressive results consistently.

A couple of good examples are…

https://www.fashionnova.com 

https://www.thebottleclub.com 

PWA

Lancome - Mobile UX

In order of complexity, considering a PWA (Progressive Web App) would be the next option. Behind the scenes this is still a browser based website, however utilising the latest technologies and ongoing improvements in browsers it allows some of the best native mobile app functionality to be employed. 

Given the above, that it is an advancement of browser based functionality rather than existing as a software application - a PWA will not be listed on the Apple / Google app stores. This can often be taken as a positive or a negative point, depending on the context of the project. There is less overhead of changing requirements or maintenance to be listed in the app stores, however it means your brand is not discoverable by users browsing there. Instead, website visitors would use a call to action to save the PWA to their mobile device - and it’ll be listed with an icon like any other app. Aside from that point, using a PWA you should be able to achieve a flexible user experience depending on the implementation, plus native load speeds, push notifications and offline usage. 

A progressive web app project often goes hand-in-hand with a Headless site build (something I mentioned previously HERE https://vervaunt.com/pros-and-cons-of-headless-shopify-plus) - but this doesn’t have to be the case. With a standard Shopify build, there are still some good options to consider in order to achieve this. Again the best option will depend on the details and context of the project - and ultimately budget - but it is worth looking into the likes of [NACELLE][AMPIFY ME][litefy-pwa] in more depth.

You can test the following examples by opening the site on Safari mobile and selecting “Add to Home Screen” from the bottom toolbar. 

Lancome - Add to Home Screen

Some examples will use popups or call to actions onsite when detecting a mobile device to push users to save to homescreen. A couple of good examples of effective PWA’s (not Shopify in these cases) are:

https://www.lancome-usa.com 

https://rootedobjects.com 

Build Custom Native App

Blue Fuel - App Store

If all of these previous options contain too much compromise, then the final consideration would be to develop a bespoke native mobile app. As long as listing on the app stores is seen as a positive aspect for the project, this selection will take the best part of each of the above - being discoverable, flexible in exactly the experience that can be achieved, performant and with the full functionality set of being native. 

Shopify has a Storefront API SDK for both iOS and Android, which is the core framework that may be used to build an app around - for API access to interact with your store and then checkout via Apple Pay, Google Pay or Credit Card. This route would undoubtedly require a bigger upfront cost than each of the others, and more time & resources to manage the bigger project. But it could achieve exactly your unique requirements, including any complexity or business logic that makes the store unsuitable for out of the box solutions. It would also mean you completely own the end product, a piece of IP that isn’t doesn’t vanish if a third-party shuts down. However, Shopify is by nature quite the opposite of this so having made that platform decision, this one may well be less critical too.  Examples:

https://www.greats.com

https://www.bluefuel.com 

If you’re considering the available options for taking your brand from Shopify to a native mobile experience, or looking at how best to improve your mobile offering, then feel free to email [email protected] for any advice on the above. 

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