Amazon has quietly turned its mobile app into a weird and wonderful ecommerce arsenal


Amazon seems to want its smartphone app to span more than just traditional online shopping.

As its customers have spilled into the mobile space, the e-commerce giant has turned its flagship app into something of a testing ground for the small-screen shopping experience of the future. It now boasts a slew of experimental features beyond Amazon’s standard store listings—some of which are impressive and potentially game-changing, others puzzling and superfluous.  

Among other things, you can solicit personalized fashion feedback from live stylists, judge items against your home decor in augmented reality, or immediately link to the Amazon page of any real-world object with the point of a camera. 

More than seven in ten of Amazon’s customers now shop from their smartphones, and a growing portion do so within the app, the company said at the end of last year.

Those are formidable numbers considering that consumers by and large remain stubbornly set in their desktop ways. Despite rapid growth and a dominant share of browsing activity, mobile shopping accounts for only one fifth of all sales industry-wide, according to comScore’s most recent report. Surveys show that shoppers are generally deterred by the confines of small screens, clunky sites and app layouts, and security worries.

The latter two obstacles are less of a concern for Amazon, which boasts a streamlined, whip-fast interface bolstered by one-click ordering as well as the implicit trust of its users.

No matter how big Amazon might grow its mobile business, though, the physical dimensions of a smartphone aren’t going to change. 

Amazon might have a way around that. Some of the recent additions to the app seem like they have the potential to bypass size-related limitations in their own way, however. 

Augmented reality tools allow customers to transcend the display boundaries of the screen, and Alexa—the company’s automated digital assistant—lets them circumvent cramped on-screen navigation. Amazon’s fashion features in particular seem tailor-made to confront the big-screen preference that weighs on mobile’s relatively small share of online apparel sales.  

As the indisputable heavyweight of the online shopping market, Amazon’s app is the front lines of where mobile shopping as a whole might be headed.

Here are some of the company’s more out-there offerings:

A mystery Snapchat knock-off 

Snapchat mimicry is such a hot trend in the tech world that even Amazon’s throwing its hat in the ring.

The latest—and most head-scratching—feature introduced into its app is a set of “shoppable” stickers to decorate photos taken within the app, the same way you might in Snapchat.

The graphics each depict an actual product from Amazon’s site, but beyond that, it’s not entirely clear why they exist.

Amazon doesn’t have a social component, so once the sticker-plastered photo is taken, the app prompts you to share through other channels. It doesn’t give any indication as to what point there might be in doing so. 

The stickers, which are are organized into collections by categories like “home,” “gold,” “fun,”and “gadgets,” are presumably meant to help people find new products, but that purpose still doesn’t explain the whimsical set-up or the intended use.  

It’s possible that the feature could be used to gauge how well a particular item matches a given setting; perhaps if someone wanted to configure the Feng shui of a room before a purchase. The cartoonish white border around each sticker isn’t well-suited to that purpose, though.

Amazon's stickers could help with home decorating?

Amazon’s stickers could help with home decorating?

Amazon itself may not even know exactly where it’s going with the tool. Perhaps it’s waiting to see what people do with it.

In any case, messing around with the feature is oddly addicting, whatever its purpose may be. 

Fashion advice

Clothes sales still mostly remain the province of stores or on desktop computers, more so than other retail categories.

Amazon has been pushing into the fashion business for years with its own designer brands and a short-lived QVC-like video shopping channel (which just recently shut down).

Its latest mobile tool in this vein is a close second to the stickers in terms of peculiarity.

The “Outfit Compare” feature, which is currently only available to Prime members, lets users upload side-by-side photos of themselves in two different outfits. Within a few minutes, Amazon’s fashion specialists—whom Amazon guarantees have background in the field—will return a verdict as to which is the better overall match.

Amazon says its responses,delivered in a three-point scale from “Definitely pick this one!” to “We like this better” and “It was a close call,” account for fit, color, style, and trends of the moment.

    

Photo identification

One of the most useful, if not exactly new, features within Amazon’s app is its image recognition tool.

Simply point the in-app camera at any marketable object and Amazon will pull up a product listings within seconds.

Unlike more gimmicky similar tools, the software is surprisingly accurate, regardless of angle, lighting, and other potentially derailing factors.

Offbeat suggestions

In a retail world inundated with endless options, well-executed curation of products has become an invaluable commodity.

Amazon’s data troves have always led the industry in terms of hyper-personalized recommendations and related items. 

But discoverability—the surfacing of relevant products to new prospective buyers—has long been a blindspot of online shopping.

Amazon is combatting that problem in part with a new section of themed product collections within the app.

The “Interesting finds” tab showcases hand-picked products tied to themes both practical (“home” and “gadgets”) as well as more conceptual (“fun” and “mid-century”). The same categories are used to organize the stickers. The layout and sensibility has a similar feel to that of Pinterest.

Unlike the majority of Amazon’s product recommendations, the lists are created by human stylists rather than algorithms. 

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