Shopping by iPad: the promise was, we were all going to cuddle up in bed with our tablet computer and have a more efficient and enjoyable shopping experience. All this, plus features you could not get from a print catalog, smartphone, or even a desktop PC (which is kind of hard to curl up with in bed).
But does that vision meet with the reality? I decided to take a look at four catalog apps for the iPad: Google Catalogs; Catalogue by TheFind; Catalog Spree; and CoffeeTable; to see what they all had to offer this picky consumer.
Right: A recent opening screen of Catalog Spree on an iPad.
In general I found the ability to search across multiple catalogs and brands to be very efficient, if not dangerous, as it is very tempting to run amok and find all kinds of things you didn't realize you needed, some from catalogs you didn't know existed. And the tablet-size computer, whether you're using an iPad or another tablet brand, is the perfect size to flip through (actually, swipe through, in this case) screens and screens of large, glossy product images.
Benefits of the Tablet Shopping Experience
So how is shopping on a tablet computer better than say, a smartphone or desktop PC?
"Shopping on a tablet is a fundamentally different experience that is centered on content consumption and passive discovery," said Ramneek Bhasin, VP and GM Mobile at TheFind. "In contrast, shopping on a desktop or your smartphone is much more task-oriented and centered on search. When you know exactly what you want, search is terrific at delivering results."
However, if you just want to browse because you don't quite know what you want, or simply because you have ten minutes to kill and just want to be entertained, added Bhasin, "search is a poor starting point with results that can be overwhelming or uninspiring."
And the type of product you're shopping for can matter, too. Bhasin says this is particularly true in lifestyle products, such as fashion and design, "where shopping patterns tend to favor browsing and discovery, as quite often the need is imprecisely defined, as in, "I'm looking for a housewarming gift.""
I found some of the biggest benefits of using the catalog apps on the iPad included the ability to magnify images when needed, to zoom in to get more info on any product, such as exact sizing guidelines; and the ability to sift through a lot of product information at once.
Left: view of a page from the Gaiam Living catalog on Catalogue by TheFind.
Another nice thing about the tablet catalog apps is that they show you whenever new catalogs are available. When I logged in a second time to Catalogue by TheFind, pop-up messages notified me that "New Catalog issues are available now." I could see featured catalogs in their opening screen: Home Decorators Collection, Tory Burch Summer 2012, Lands' End; and something called Moosejaw. So the app introduced me to catalogs I didn't even know about, which was fun, but can tempt one to spend more money!
Another obvious benefit of getting catalogs on your tablet computer is that if you use them in lieu of paper catalogs, it's a greener way to shop. Catalogue by TheFind also has links built directly into the app to "Catalog Choice," an organization that will help take you off of mailing lists and free you to simply browse only the catalogs you're interested in.
In Google Catalogs, users can view back issues of catalogs as well as current issues, so if a shopper wants to revisit, say, the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, they'll be able to do so. Google Catalogs has over 1,000 catalog issues currently available, according to a Google spokesperson.
Using the iPad's Camera: Previewing an Item in Your Home
One of the coolest features of Catalogue by TheFind is its ability to make use of the iPad or other tablet's built-in camera to "preview" how an item will look in your home. This video hosted on Box.com shows a demo of how it works, with the customer dragging an image of a framed work of art into the image of her room.
Above: screen shot from a demo video of Catalogue by TheFind's Camera View feature, which lets you preview how a product will look in your own home. The framed piece of art is being dragged to the appropriate placement in an actual camera view of the shopper's own living room.
"When we thought about the iPad and its camera, our team at TheFind immediately recognized an opportunity to re-imagine the paper catalog," said Bhasin. Catalogs that have the feature, such as Crate and Barrel, have a camera icon. If you push that icon, you can take images from the catalog and put them into the viewfinder of your iPad's camera and literally place merchandise into your living space.
You can also email the photos or share them on Facebook to get your friends' opinions.
Popularity of Tablet Apps
So far, this way of shopping seems to be catching on. "In less than one year, our app has been downloaded more than 1 million times and was the recipient of 2012 Mediapost Appy Award for best retail app," said Bhasin.
Martin McClanan, CEO of Norm Thompson Outfitters, launched catalogs on CatalogSpree and says their mobile commerce has increased 353%, with 51% of these visits on the iPad.
Catalog Spree CEO Joaquin Ruiz says it has the most ratings and highest quality ratings total from users in the App Store - with 1848 total ratings at 4+ stars; and 29 ratings for the latest version at 5 stars.
Differences among Catalog Apps
So how does each catalog app distinguish itself from the others? On the most obvious level, each catalog has its own slightly different look and feel. Catalog Spree's opening screen, for example, has a cornucopia of catalog covers on which to feast your eyes: three rows of six catalog cover images. For me this included Wine Enthusiast, Red
Envelope, Fingerhut, Eastbay, Sundance, Title Nine, Neiman Marcus, and more. Spree's logo is a smiling, retro-cartoonish woman's face that reminds me a little of Jane Jetson.
The organization and navigation on each catalog app are slightly different; on Spree; you swipe through the rows of catalog covers, and the icons on top are New, Brands, Catalogs, Depts., and Favorites. On TheFind, the opening screen features only four catalogs and is less busy, but you are not seeing as many catalogs at once.
On all of the catalog apps, you can swipe to browse the various catalogs, and they all have an overall Search feature.
Google Catalogs' icon on your desktop features Google's signature bright colors, the same ones of the "Chrome" browser ball, but as a little "wave" of color. The icon reads simply "Catalogs." Clicking into Google Catalogs, you see a bit more curated experience, with "Editor's Picks," as well as "Catalogs," "Favorites," and something different: "Collages." These feature visual, well, collages of certain product types, with themes such as perfumes "What's Your Scent?" and "Treats for Your Guy." And, reminiscent of Pinterest, you can create your own collages.
Right: sample of Google Catalogs "Collage" feature.
The Google Catalogs app has only been available for the iPad since August 2011, and for the Android since Nov. 2011. The main focus of Google Catalogs at the moment is "extending the reach of merchants," said the Google spokesperson.
She also emphasized the interactive content embedded in the catalogs, such as the ability to watch a demo video of a product in, for example, the Williams-Sonoma catalog, or to find a recipe. From the front cover of the Williams-Sonoma Summer 2012 catalog, I was able to click and view a "Steel Grill Roaster Pan" YouTube video that showed how to cook a pork roast using the pan in an outdoor grill.
The 1000+ catalog issues in the Google app today are across 250+ brands. "Some of the most popular catalogs include J. Crew, Sephora, Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Neiman Marcus," said the Google spokesperson.
There are also 22 different categories of catalogs, including: Women's Fashion, Men's Fashion, Home, Beauty, Jewelry, Gourmet, Gadgets, Gifts, Kids & Baby, Wedding, Intimates & Loungewear, Swimwear, Women's Plus, Men's Big & Tall, Athletic & Sports, Outdoor Adventure, Toys, Pets, Electronics & Computers, Home Improvement & Tools, Gardening and Health & Wellness.
Google offers not only the Catalogs tablet app for iPad and Android tablets, but also an embed-able web app (examples includes this Ralph Lauren page, and this Pottery Barn online catalog), as well as analytics. In addition, Google hopes to integrate with other Google products over the long term to give their catalogs even more exposure.
Google Catalogs currently has 164 ratings with an average rating of 2.7 on the Google Play site. At the iTunes store, it has 776 ratings with an average of 3 stars across all versions, with the current version having 5 ratings of an average of 3+.
Catalogue by TheFind
"Catalogue by TheFind differentiates along five vectors," says Bhasin. "First, we have a deep set of existing retailer relationships that have allowed us to quickly add nearly 200 of the top national catalogs into the app. Second, Catalogue is available across the widest number of mobile platforms, including all models of the iPad, the Kindle Fire, Android tablets and large screen Android phones."
Third, Bhasin said the aforementioned Camera View functionality is unique to Catalogue. "Fourth, our shopping index of 500,000 stores and 500 million products is always accessible in the app via the search icon,...so if you don't see something you are looking for in a catalog you can always search for it from within the app. Finally, Catalogue is tightly integrated with Facebook to help you like and share your favorite catalogs and even the pages and the products you like, with your friends. And even if your friends don't have a tablet device, they can still use the Facebook version of Catalogue by TheFind."
Catalogue by TheFind currently has 1371 ratings with an average of 4 across all versions in the Apple App Store, and 34 ratings with an average of 4+ for the current version.
The key metrics that set apart Catalog Spree are its speed and its user experience. The most ratings and highest quality ratings total from users in the App Store: the aforementioned 1848 total ratings at 4+ stars; and 29 ratings for the latest version at 5 stars.
"The user experience is a feature unto itself," said Catalog Spree's CEO Joaquin Ruiz, who dubs it "sofa shopping," and says the average user session in April was 23 minutes. Prime usage time is around 6 pm Pacific Time, or 9 pm on the East Coast). Ruiz said Catalog Spree is the number one app in its category, and has grown from seven to now 220 retailers.
Ruiz says that although the app does not currently use the camera in tablet computers, it is focused mainly on the entertainment and social aspects of the shopping experience. For example, there is Facebook functionality where you can login and share your lists on the social media site. It's "not just a shopping experience but also a social experience," he says.
And "people do react to the fact that it's extremely fast," says Catalog Spree Chief Marketing Officer Arnaud Collin, who said their technology actually anticipates a user's next move.
Another entry into the catalog field is called "CoffeeTable," which features the icons "Showcase," "What's New," "Wishlist," "Library," and "Subscriptions." I like having the "Wishlist" up front and center, and very prominent on every product, so I would not necessarily buy everything I like right away. (CoffeeTable currently has 102 user ratings at an average of 4+ in the Apple App Store).
One of the best things about CoffeeTable, in my opinion, is the ability to do a quick checkout: "Purchase directly in the app in just a few taps with Express Checkout only by CoffeeTable," touts the app in its list of features in the App Store.
One of the things that I found frustrating about some of the other Catalog apps is that when it came time to actually purchase an item or items, I was redirected to that retailer's website and had to create an account with them if I did not already have one. It would be nice if the catalog apps allowed you to create one login one time to checkout across all the catalogs.
To use CoffeeTable's Express Checkout, you need to click the little gears icon on the upper right and select "Create New Account"; this could have been labeled a little more clearly.
Catalog Shopping at Its Finest, and Most Fun
In sum, with its breadth of retailers, wealth of product information, customizability, and social media linking, the tablet shopping experience with catalog apps seems to have an edge over every other way of viewing catalogs,...unless perhaps you are old-school and really like your catalogs in paper format.
But what may be the one downside to the apps may be summed up in this user comment on the iTunes Store about Catalog Spree: "Really enjoy this,...but can't stop my wife from buying everything she sees!"