Mobile Fashion Shopping Apps: What Types There Are and How They Work

Fashion not only attracts glances on the runway, but captures the attention of app developers as well. From NY Fashion Week styles to weather-aware clothing recommendations, there is high demand for stylish shopping apps in today’s mobile world.

The main problem with shopping apps is that carts end up being abandoned just before checkout. The reasons for users abandoning carts can vary from technical issues to a lengthy checkout process to laziness. Sometimes users don’t complete the transaction because they simply forget which online store they were browsing. And with so many great mobile shopping apps today, you can easily find a great product and then forget which store it was in. This happens to me all the time.

A single shopping app for the entire internet, or in other words a fashion e-commerce aggregator, can potentially solve this problem by allowing users to shop for products across multiple retailers on their mobile phones. The hypothesis behind this is that fewer carts will equal more buying.

How does an e-commerce fashion aggregator work?

A fashion aggregator collects information about fashion items from several competing sources. It typically makes money through advertising. There are several ways you can collect the data from fashion e-commerce websites if you want to develop a fashion application:

  • requiring the vendors to upload their inventory to your app in a specific format (XML or CSV).
  • crawling websites to get the data, or using RSS feeds for this purpose
  • using APIs of fashion retailers. For example, large brands like Asos and ShopStyle provide APIs which allow fashion app developers to get access to their catalogues. Check out a full list of fashion e-commerce APIs here.
  • using some large datasets open to the public
  • combining all the above mentioned methods

The hardest and most expensive way to aggregate e-commerce websites is through raw crawling, because the content comes in an unstructured format, and requires serious and ongoing developer effort to be able to work the crawled data into the app.

There are companies that employ teams of developers to build special scraper software to feed fashion items to their apps. This type of software scrapes real-time inventory data from merchant websites and caches the data locally on your server. If a user does a search for a fashion item in your app then the most recently cached data on your server will feed the results.

The fashion shopping app Lyst uses open source Scrapy, a web scraping framework built in Python, for extracting the data they need from fashion e-commerce websites. Scrapy was built by Scrapinghub, a company that provides a cloud-based web crawling platform, off-the-shelf datasets, and turn-key web scraping services. Check out more of Scrapinghub’s open source projects here.

Filter interaction for a shopping app.

[Filter interactions for a fashion shopping app designed by Yalantis. Check it out on Dribbble]

What’s Pinterest for fashion?

When a fashion e-commerce aggregator becomes more or less popular it may switch to an affiliate model. With this model a company generates revenue from items placed in its app without carrying inventories, managing orders, processing payments, or handling packaging and shipping. When an aggregator runs an affiliate model it concentrates on relationships with specific brands or retailers by establishing partnerships with them, and earns a commission from purchases.

Fashion apps that aggregate fashion products through affiliate links have been in use for quite a while by startups like Fancy, PopSugar-owned ShopStyle, Polyvore, Stylect, and a lot of others.

These apps provide users with a curated stream of products from multiple brands acting as discovery and search engines for shoppers and sales aggregators for affiliates.

Quite often a fashion shopping aggregator that uses an affiliate business model combines this model with other sources of revenue. Polyvore, for example, a fashion shopping app that solves the “I have nothing to wear” problem by featuring endless style inspirations, makes money in the following ways:

  • driving traffic as an affiliate  
  • serving as a cost-per-click advertising platform
  • running their own ads 

Even though the affiliate network and native ads work great in terms of generating revenue streams, they aren’t the main reason for Polyvore’s success. The "3 C's" or content, community, and commerce is why the product wins in a very competitive fashion market, because these three factors influence a customer’s buying decision.

Read also: Predicting House Price Using Regression Algorithm for Machine Learning

Fashion e-commerce app development

[T-shirt filter animation by Yalantis. See it on Dribbble]

As Forbes puts it, Content is for inspiration and information; Community for social validation and recommendations; and Commerce for making the purchase. As a result, Yahoo! Inc. paid about $230 million for Polyvore in August 2015.

Content in Polyvore’s case are user-generated product collections, but there are other types of content used by fashion shopping apps to boost their conversion rates. ShopStyle, for example, gains traffic from PopSugar’s media company’s readers and also from ShopSense, ShopStyle’s influencer platform that lets bloggers link to ShopStyle products. The company’s goal is to keep the purchase separate from the content, because one function is better than lots of them. When it comes to revenue, ShopStyle earns a cut exceeding 10 percent from its top retail partners.

Neither of the above mentioned apps process any payments. They are “discovery platforms” where users can browse pretty clothes from a variety of fashion e-commerce websites. However, buying stuff can only be done on a retailer’s mobile website, and that sucks.

How does a universal shopping cart work?

A “universal shopping cart” can fix checkout on the web by giving users an actual cart within an aggregator app where they can put products from multiple merchants and check out without hopping from one app to another. This innovation suggests many potential business opportunities because it reduces the risk of basket abandonment by acting as a unified storefront for shoppers.

Creating a “universal shopping cart” means implementing in-app payments eliminating the process of entering credit card and shipping information every time you want to make a purchase. Once uploaded, the data can be securely stored in the system.

According to Chris Morton, the founder of Lyst, universal checkout shows higher conversion rates, in some cases five times better. Other than pumping up conversion rates, a universal shopping cart allows Lyst to collect data and provide insights to brands and retail partners as a perk which is the second part of its business model.

Lyst’s cart doesn’t allow customers to shop for every item listed in the app, though. The fashion company partners with certain brands and retailers, including Alexander Wang, Adam Lippes and Editorialist to deliver a seamless payment experience to its users. But if you want to buy a fancy dress from a merchant that opted out of the Lyst’s universal shopping cart, you’d need to jump on their website to make the purchase.

Universal shopping carts are great, but they deprive retailers of creating their own branded shopping experience. That’s why this feature doesn’t appeal to retailers and brands who pay a lot of attention to their image.

What’s more, syncing up with all retailer inventory systems to make sure that items are still available in the right size and color at any given time is a technical challenge that stops a lot of fashion app developers from taking this route.

Keep, a well-known fashion shopping aggregator, once had a OneCart feature that allowed users to make a purchase right in the app instead of redirecting to the retailer's website. I’m using the past tense here because Keep had to shut this down, even though consumers loved the feature, according to Keep’s CEO Scott Kurnit.

How to develop a universal shopping cart?

[Defunct OneCart Keep's feature]

The reason for scaling back OneCart was that it was not an automated service. The company employed actual humans who would complete a purchase for items that users ordered through multiple e-commerce websites. Every time a user placed an order through the Keep cart and made a transaction, they actually paid Keep, not the retailer. Since human capital is expensive, Keep now redirects its users to the affiliate retailer sites to handle the checkout process.

Pinterest without a “buy” button or Amazon with an arduous checkout process would definitely miss the mark when it comes to achieving the fundamental goal of a shopping app: that is to shop! There are products in the fashion space, though, that sell things a bit differently. They allow each retail brand to choose which items they want to sell and how those items are presented within the app, and also simplify the process of buying fashion items for users.

See also: Designing registration and checkout flow for a shopping app

What’s Instagram for fashion?

Instagram for fashion is when you kill the shopping cart and center the shopping experience around an Instagram-like photo feed of products. Spring was one such startup. It partnered with retailers allowing them to post photos of items for sale each day. Spring charged brands a rate lower than the typical 8 to 12 percent affiliate sales fee on purchases made within the Spring's app.

After filling out credit card and shipping information only once, Spring users could make purchases with the touch of a button. The app integrated with a brand's existing e-commerce infrastructure, so after checkout, fashion companies were able to handle shipping, returns, and exchanges just as they would if you were to buy from their own bespoke website. In other words, an Instagram for fashion is just an entry point for fashion shops, but with a “swipe to pay.” Spring is now part of ShopRunner, a two-day shipping service. ShopRunner has recently acquired Spring to expand ShopRunner's customer base.

Wanelo is another fashion shopping app that works similarly to Spring. It allows e-commerce sites to sell and manage their presence on the marketplace just like they would on Instagram or any other social network. Wanelo works with Shopify apps, letting their developers automatically post all of a store's inventory on Wanelo. The company takes an average cut of 10 to 15 percent of purchases made inside its app.

Wanelo is working with payments startup Stripe to allow customers to pay. The same system is used by Fancy, a Pinterest-style social fashion e-commerce app. 

Read our Stripe vs Braintree developer research. It might be useful in your fashion app development.

In the end, I can’t but mention Tinder for fashion, a term that might be applied to retail aggregators such as Mallzee, Fancy, the UK’s Grabble, and Stylect (Tinder for shoes) due to their swipe left for no and right for like functionality. Even though this style of fashion shopping app complies with the social media mood of this article, it has nothing to do with how a fashion marketplace makes money. However, it does provide a more engaging, addictive, and a super-fast way to convert customers and drive purchases.

Even though we’re tired of "Tinder cards" that get picked up by startups here and there, this layout keeps attracting the attention of app developers as indicated by the popularity of the open source Koloda animation we built here at Yalantis. 

If you're into shopping app development, you might also like our articles:

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