Taming the Wild West: How the iPhone App Store Should – and Probably Will – Change

Faux App Store Walmart Logo

The iPhone has been the biggest boon for independent game and app developers in recent memory, but the surge of devs looking to cash in has overwhelmed the current format of the App Store as an e-commerce platform.

It’s a good problem to have, certainly, but it means there’s a huge opportunity for Apple to push the needle even more by improving the way products are presented to consumers on the platform.

Apple’s brick and mortar stores are hip, sparse environments with big aisles and a dearth of shelf space – they can pull this off because they have only a few product lines, and they’ve achieved premium brand positioning akin to high-end fashion and jewelry retailers.

But if Apple’s retail outlets are Prada and Tiffany’s, then the App Store is Walmart.

There are currently upwards of 115,000 third-party apps available for iPhone owners to choose from, and like it or not, most of these aren’t exactly premium products. There’s a glut of amazing software out there, but most of it’s small, simple and cheap.

And while the variety and value found in the App Store is similar, the presentation of products is nothing like Walmart. It isn’t even like Amazon or other big online retailers. To service those 115,000 products, the App Store actually has surprisingly limited options for product visibility.

The App Store’s shelf space consists of just a few sought after promotional slots, determined by Apple’s editorial team (presumably a group of cloaked and hooded masterminds, convening in an ominous-looking cave somewhere deep beneath Cupertino). Besides the limited promotional space, product presentation is nothing more than a few lists of top-selling products.

And for the majority of that shelf space – even apps lucky enough to show up in the ‘What’s Hot’ spotlight and similar sections – only the app title and icon are visible. There’s a wealth of information that could be added – an app’s rating, a brief description, rotating screenshots, etc. – by slightly increasing the real estate given to promoted apps.

Product presentation in a big-box retailer is carefully controlled. Shelf space is rationed out to specific products based on an overwhelming amount of research (not to mention plenty of deals and partnerships), and endcap promotions are constantly cycling. Similarly, online retail behemoths like Amazon and Newegg have a constant stream of promotions and complete control over the placement of products.

Online retailers are getting even better about customizing product placement based on each user’s viewing and purchasing habits. Apple has dipped its toes in the water with the ‘Genius’ feature, but there’s surely an opportunity to deliver a more personalized user experience for every iPhone owner. If the App Store was as good at suggesting products as Amazon and Netflix, it would mean more overall app sales (good for Apple) – and probably far less of a top-heavy market (good for developers).

There are signs Apple is learning lessons from online and offline retailers. Seasonal and demographically targeted banner promotions (“Apps for Toddlers”) inside the App Store have become more commonplace, and the ‘Apps for iPhone’ promotion on Apple.com recently saw a revamp.

Apple is undoubtedly cognizant of the App Store’s deficiencies – major changes could be just around the corner. Whatever these changes end up being, they could mean a whole new game for iPhone app marketing. Developers need to stay on their toes, as those who are able to adjust when the landscape shifts will be ahead of the game.

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  • Sam D.

    what an “apt” analogy.

    BusinessWeek just interviewed Apple's SVP of Product Marketing, Phil Schiller, about the App Store's approval process, but he doesn't address the App Store's inefficiencies at marketing their own products: http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/

  • Sam D.

    what an “apt” analogy.

    BusinessWeek just interviewed Apple's SVP of Product Marketing, Phil Schiller, about the App Store's approval process, but he doesn't address the App Store's inefficiencies at marketing their own products: http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/