Popular Shopping Apps: Where Do People Use Retail Apps?

Ian Heinig

Consumers are most likely to use shopping apps at home – sometimes as often as 2-5 times per week, according to Visual Object’s survey of 501 smartphone users. They prefer using mass merchant and pure online retailers’ apps, like Target, Walmart, Amazon, or Costco, more than apparel, food and beverage, or convenience store apps. The data shows that e-commerce businesses should focus on incorporating mobile into the buyer journey to maximize success.

Shopping apps suit consumers’ increasingly busy schedules and desire for a shopping experience that is both convenient and high-quality.

The number of shopping apps on the average smartphone doubled last year, up to 4 total, according to a study by the financial services firm Synchrony. Nearly 7 in 10 smartphone users now use at least one shopping app.

Visual Objects surveyed 501 smartphones users who have downloaded at least one shopping app in the past month to discover when and where people use these types of apps.

Our research finds that consumers primarily use shopping apps at home, a handful of times per week. Consumers most frequently use mass merchant and online retail apps.

Businesses can use this report to optimize their e-commerce mobile app experience to better engage and retain audiences.

Our Findings

  • The most popular e-commerce apps are mass merchant retailer apps (81%), which include businesses like Target, Walmart, or Costco.
  • Pure online retailer apps (77%) like Amazon or Overstock, food and beverage apps (61%), apparel apps (35%), and convenience store apps (33%) follow as the top five most popular shopping apps.
  • People prefer to use shopping apps while at home (79%) instead of on the go or in the store.
  • More than 9 in 10 people use pure online retailer apps and 81% use mass merchant retailer apps primarily at home.
  • Food and beverage apps are the only apps used more while in the retailer’s store (67%) than at home (59%).
  • Among those that use shopping apps more than once per month, 54% use them weekly, and 28% use them daily.

Consumers Favor Shopping Apps From Mass Market and Pure Online Retailers

Larger retailers capture the majority of in-app shopping.

The most popular shopping apps are mass market retailer apps (81%), followed by pure online retailer apps (77%), food and beverage apps (61%), apparel apps (35%), and convenience store apps (33%).

Types of shopping apps people use the most

Mass market retailers are companies that sell products that are affordably priced and appeal to a variety of consumers. Examples of mass market retailers include big box stores like Target, Best Buy, or Sam’s Club, as well as recognizable clothing brands like Gap.

Many mass market retailers such as Target and Walmart capitalized on the mobile app shopping trend. Consumers now reward these frontrunners with high volumes of traffic.

In 2018, for example, Walmart claimed the second most popular mobile shopping app, with more than 80 million monthly users. It originally launched its mobile app in 2011, only 3 years after the debut of Apple’s App Store.

most popular shopping apps in the U.S.

The transition to a mobile shopping app came naturally for many pure online retailers such as Amazon and eBay, given their start on the internet.

Mass marketer retailers and large online retailers typically offer two elements that attract users:

  • A streamlined user experience (UX)
  • Brand reputation

Following the example of larger companies, small businesses can create a better mobile shopping app by improving their UX and building customer trust.

Large Retailers Offer Omnichannel Brand Experiences

Both mass market and online shopping app leaders succeed by designing rewarding user experiences

Unlike many smaller brands, these retail giants can offer the best deals and the most refined features, all within a seamless omnichannel brand experience that users now expect.

For example, consider Amazon and its 140 million active mobile users. The app copies much of Amazon’s website UX, which ranks highest among users of most generations due to its unrivaled navigation, convenience, and value. 

Downloading the Amazon app provides the same personalized and streamlined UX as the Amazon website. Combining the app and website allows consumers to shop both on a computer and a phone.

Larger Companies’ Apps Benefit From Built-Up Brand Reputation

Shopping app leaders, such as Walmart, benefit from built-in brand trust. 

Trustworthiness is key to acquiring and retaining users, said Cindy Liu, a forecast analyst at the B2B blog eMarketer. This is especially true for older users who may be unfamiliar with online shopping or hesitant to purchase something online.

"While browsing and researching products on smartphones is very high, not all consumers are totally comfortable making a complete purchase yet," Liu said.

Large retailers often build shoppers’ trust with in-app features such as:

  • Low-price and price-match guarantees
  • In-app comparisons
  • Free returns
  • Fast turnaround on returns
  • Proven protection for credit card data

These features lessen the friction of mobile purchasing, encourage app use, and promote app sales. As a result, people feel more secure and satisfied.

Consumers embrace the mobile shopping apps of mass merchant and online retail brands for their value, convenience, and reputation as trustworthy brands. To secure users, small businesses must offer users the features, protections, and benefits they’ve come to expect from the likes of Amazon and Walmart.

E-Commerce Mobile Apps Used Most Frequently At Home

In-app shopping is more convenient than a trip to the store, so people tend to use mobile shopping apps at home.

most people use shopping apps at home or on-the-go

The apps that see the heaviest in-home use are:

  • Pure online retailer apps (92%)
  • Mass merchant retailer apps (81%)
  • Apparel apps (79%)
  • Convenience store apps (62%)

Food and beverage apps are the only exception and are used most often in the retailer’s store (67%).

Shopping Apps People Use At Home the Most

The Harvard Business Review found that 68% of consumers’ smartphone use happens in the house, confirming Visual Object’s data. 

At home, people more easily can create and fulfill a shopping order, ponder in-app dinner options, and peruse items that enhance their lifestyle, without taking a trip to the store.

The proximity to desktop and laptop devices also facilitates a purchase at home. Smartphone users often prefer to complete their online purchase on a non-mobile device, according to the personalization company Monetate. This is because mobile UX is limited by: 

  • Smaller screen sizes
  • Issues with mobile responsiveness
  • Concerns about mobile data security

Nonetheless, the advertising firm Criteo found that retailers with successful mobile apps are now driving the majority of their sales from their mobile apps. Retailers with both apps and mobile sites now receive almost 66% of their online sales from mobile, on average. 

This suggests that only brands with an effective and rewarding mobile UX will be able to capitalize on the shift to mobile app shopping.

Understanding Mobile App vs. Mobile Web Shopping Experiences

One way businesses can improve their mobile UX is to consider the experiences of mobile app users versus mobile web users.

Consumers may be skeptical of making purchases on their mobile web browser, but can be better persuaded by a mobile app experience.

A study by Criteo found that conversion rates on mobile retail apps were 3x higher than on mobile web browsers.

graph showing conversion rates are higher on mobile shopping apps than mobile websites

By downloading a shopping app, consumers signal greater trust in a brand by offering it space on their phone. Thus, consumers may be more likely to make a purchase through the app.

Yet, mobile web searches offer benefits for some shoppers.

A new or undefined product is found more easily via web searches rather than jumping between a variety of shopping apps. In fact, buyers prefer mobile web search to mobile apps when performing research and comparing products, according to Google. 

Businesses should focus on optimizing their mobile app UX for dedicated customers but keep their mobile web UX clean for comparison shopping.

Overall, people use e-commerce apps at home because they are convenient and can replace a trip to the store. 

Shopping Apps Most Often Used 2-5 Times Per Week 

Consumers use e-commerce mobile apps frequently – if they are convenient.

More than one-third (35%) of people surveyed who use shopping apps more than once per month tend to engage with these e-commerce apps between 2 and 5 times a week. Others use shopping apps at least once a week (19%), 2 to 3 times a month (18%), and several times a day (16%).

How Often People Use Retailer Apps

Consumers will use shopping apps more frequently if the apps help them accomplish tasks efficiently or provide savings.

How can businesses encourage greater e-commerce mobile app engagement? Businesses should focus on building and improving app features that meet their users’ needs.

A survey from Visual Object’s sister site, B2B research firm Clutch, found that shopping app users are most interested in features like in-app purchases, discounts, and loyalty rewards.

consumer use of e-commerce app features

App development companies should help businesses develop features that resolve friction points for shoppers to encourage engagement. Ask yourself, “Are your customers looking to save with coupons, browse your inventory, or earn rewards, for example?”

Your app can resolve friction points in various ways, including:

  • Personalizing the app to the user’s name, location, and payment preferences
  • Recommending products similar to those already purchased
  • Including a digital wallet function to streamline purchasing
  • Offering various delivery options, such as in-home or car-side delivery
  • Integrating a multi-tier loyalty program that rewards app use and repeat purchases

Companies that tailor the app experience to what their audience desires will enjoy optimal engagement and customer loyalty.

How Food and Beverage, Convenience Store, and Apparel Shopping Apps Engage Customers

Consumers use apparel, food and beverage, and convenience store apps differently compared to mass merchant and pure online retailer apps.

While mass merchant and pure online retailer apps are used mostly at home, apparel, food and beverage, and convenience store apps occupy a more dynamic place in users’ lives.

What are these e-commerce apps doing right to engage customers?

Food and Beverage Apps Offer Convenience and Perks 

Food and beverage apps are used most in the retailer’s store (67%), on the go (59%), and at home (52%). 

locations where people use food and beverage apps

To incentivize app engagement, food and beverage retailers offer:

  • Loyalty programs
  • Coupons to be redeemed both in the app and store
  • Convenient and flexible ordering

For example, the Starbucks mobile app is the vehicle for the brand’s loyalty program and digital wallet. New users are invited to climb the tier system within the app to access better rewards.

Starbucks' app ensures people become return users by offering tiered loyalty rewards

As they accrue points that pay for future purchases, Starbucks app users can:

  • Save time by ordering ahead
  • Pay faster with their digital wallet
  • Hear music from the store
  • Receive special discounts
  • Find other Starbucks locations nearby

The features of the Starbucks app enhance the in-store experience, drive mobile app use, and reinforce customer loyalty. These mobile tie-ins create a new in-store experience and satisfy every engagement criteria for repeat app use such as value, convenience, and flexibility.

Mobile Convenience Store Apps Offer Quick Savings

Convenience store apps are most often used at home (62%), in the retailer’s store (60%), and on the go (54%). Convenience store apps focus on helping users find locations, check prices quickly, and redeem coupons to secure repeat sales.

locations where people use convenience store apps

For example, Walgreens uses its app to satisfy the needs of its pharmacy customers. The app offers a simplified refill, pickup, and checkout process for prescriptions.

Walgreens' app allows users to get prescriptions faster


Users also benefit from the Pill Reminder function, loyalty rewards based on healthy purchases, and auto-login to a simplified menu.

Overall, convenience store apps must provide value and ease to shoppers from any location.

Mobile Apparel Apps Enable Comparisons and Later Purchases

Retail apparel apps are often used to inform and validate later purchases, whether that’s by checking prices, discounts, or item availability. Though most frequently used at home, apparel apps are also used on the go (57%) and in the retailer’s store (55%).

locations where people use apparel retailer apps

When shoppers use an app in a retailer’s store, it’s often as a surrogate sales assistant. Retail shoppers are more than twice as likely to consult their smartphones than in-store sales assistants, according to research by the product experience platform Salsify.

"Consumers are increasingly turning to their mobile devices to answer product-related questions, like price and availability, while they shop," said Jason Purcell, CEO and co-founder of Salsify, a product experience management platform.

Shoppers are using mobile apps both in-store and online to make comparisons, which illustrates “just how critical it is for every brand and retailer to have a systematized approach to … retain shopper attention and win sales," Purcell concluded. 

Apparel apps work collaboratively with the in-store experience. For example, online purchases that follow a physical visit to a store are 64% larger than those conducted purely online, as reported by Harvard Business Review.

Since brick-and-mortar sales are still key, apparel retailers must incentivize both app use and store visits. To this end, an apparel app can offer:

  • One-off sale incentives
  • Personalized discounts
  • Notifications when a searched-for item is restocked or available in a nearby store

According to Google, 66% of users are more likely to buy from a brand whose app is personalized to their experience based on location. 

Retailers need to accommodate individual user preferences for browsing and purchasing across multiple channels. This means leveraging app tie-ins to attract customers to the storefront, then driving sales via the channel that best fits the particular user.

Businesses Must Emphasize an Omnichannel Approach to Shopping Apps

Businesses should develop their mobile app to provide the convenience and benefits their customers want in a way that entices but never forces them to change their behavior. This means making it seamless for customers to browse and make purchases in whichever channel they prefer.

Overlap your mobile app, mobile web, and in-store presence to deliver the value and ease shoppers want. When people feel rewarded but not restricted by the app, they are more likely to explore and make purchases.

To encourage app use as you accommodate varied paths to purchase, you can:

  • Notify mobile app users of in-store discounts at nearby stores
  • Advertise your app in-store and on mobile web
  • Offer coupons for using the app as a mobile wallet
  • Move mobile web shoppers into the app to complete a purchase
  • Use push notifications to remind users of items in their cart
  • Advertise a gamified shopping experience on your mobile app
  • Add a wish list button to help users buy products on desktop if preferred

To optimize your app experience, look to your engagement metrics and survey your users, then adjust your omnichannel strategy as needed.

For example, if users are responding to your app, consider adding app-like features to your website. These tweaks might include optimizing mobile load times, reducing form fields, and streamlining the checkout process. 

Apps get used when they’re part of a seamless and efficient path to purchase. Don’t require people to use your app. Instead, make them aware of your app’s benefits. This will incentivize people to download, engage with the app, and make purchases in whichever way they see fit. 

How People Use Shopping Apps

The majority of retail visitors are now supplementing their shopping with mobile apps. Most users turn to shopping apps 2-5 times per week to save time and money.

Mass merchant and pure online mobile retailer apps are the most popular types of shopping apps and are most frequently used at home. The trustworthiness and reliability of these retailers makes them a standby for shoppers looking for both unique and repeat purchases.

Convenience store apps are used to access coupons and save time on everyday items, often in the retailer’s store or on the go. Food and beverage apps occupy a similar role, as they allow for in-store discounts, flexible ordering, and convenience.

Apparel store mobile apps are most often used at home but secondarily in the retailer’s store. These users are browsing and evaluating items across multiple channels, so retailers must encourage engagement and conversions via both digital and physical channels.

Shopping apps give brands a chance to reach, influence, and convert shoppers. The most successful mobile app retailers take an integrated, omnichannel approach that allows users to choose when, where, and how they buy.

About This Survey

Visual Objects surveyed 501 smartphones users in the U.S. who have downloaded and use a shopping app multiple times a month.

Respondents were split across age groups: 18 to 24 (4%); 25 to 34 (18%); 35 to 54 (26%); 45 to 54 (21%); 55 to 64 (19%); and 65 and over (11%). 

Females represented 69% of respondents.


Ian Heinig

Writer, Clutch

Ian Heinig is a copywriter who loves big ideas, brand strategy, and psychology. Most days he's drafting new ways to share value, but he's also an illustrator, yogi, and freelance burrito analyst. Find him at radicalartsdepartment.com.

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