More and more shoppers are phoning it in, using apps to pre-order, get discounts, earn freebies and skip the lines.
Picture this: You need coffee. But there’s a line at the counter and you need to get to work.
Then someone saunters in, brushes past you and grabs their own coffee, ready and waiting, from the counter.
For the love of lattes, how?
There’s no secret handshake (that I can tell you about) or classified password (that you’re cleared to know).
You just need the app.
“If there’s a line, you get dirty looks from people who don’t know about this,” said Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor and probably the guy who sauntered past you last week at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Turns out that apps — those little software programs on your phone — are good for more than playing Candy Crush or getting driving directions.
At brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants, they let you skip the line, find discounts, get free stuff, reveal the price of un-tagged items, help with projects and even tell you whether the thing you want is in store and where you can find it.
They offer a host of perks to anyone in the know.
We’ll get you in the know.
Pizza, doughnuts and boots
Mobile apps have been around for decades. Rudimentary ones — calculator, calendar, basic games — graced early, not-so-smart cellphones and PDAs (raise your hand if you remember the PalmPilot).
App popularity exploded in 2008, when Apple launched its App Store. Smartphones were getting smarter and apps got cleverer right along with them.
Billions of apps are now downloaded every year by Apple and Android users. According to a report by App Annie — a company whose sole purpose is to tell other companies about apps — people use about 10 apps each day.
Go on, count how many you’ve used today. I’ll wait.
By the way, the Google search bar counts as one. If you’re reading this on the Sun Journal app, that’s two.
If you logged into Lewiston House of Pizza’s app to order a ham Italian for lunch, that’s three.
You didn’t know Lewiston House of Pizza had an app? Surprise!
“We have online ordering and it’s definitely picked up quite a bit,” Manager Mindy Souza said. “It doesn’t take that much longer, and if our phones are busy . . . I mean, most of the time we’re pretty busy.”
That app, available both for Android and Apple, lets customers place an order now or place an order ahead for later — even later the next day, even for delivery — and pay with a debit or credit card. The perk: Customers can avoid both the frustrating busy signal and the wait in line, essentially skipping ahead of everyone else.
Actually, that’s the best perk for a lot of restaurant apps.
Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts let you app-order, too, and they automatically add your purchase to your loyalty rewards account.
Panera Bread’s app does all of that too. In fact, you can use Panera’s free wi-fi to order and pay through the app, then skip the line entirely by picking up your order at the “rapid pickup” shelf. (I know this because I’ve ordered from the app while, literally, standing at the end of an out-the-door line.)
Krispy Kreme — One is coming to Auburn. At some point. Probably soon! — has a handful of apps. However, the one you want, unless you live in the UK or Indonesia, has an icon of a glazed doughnut with a heart-shaped hole. That one tells you when fresh doughnuts are done. It also sends a notice to your phone when the “Hot Light” is on. You know, the important information you need for life.
If you like eating at home more than eating out, both Shaw’s and Hannaford have their own apps now, too. Among the perks, the Shaw’s app lets you clip digital coupons and add items to your shopping list directly from past receipts. The Hannaford app offers “just for you” coupons and rewards.
Need winter boots/car oil/cat litter? Brick-and-mortar retailers are increasingly in the app game, too.
L.L. Bean launched its Apple app in 2015. (No word on an Android version.) The app’s been downloaded tens of thousands of times since then and it’s been rated almost 5 stars thanks to more than 180 reviewers.
The app allows shoppers to order online, locate a nearby story, look up rewards and coupons, use a bar code scanner to price items in the store and view what they’ve bought in the past. Users can also get information about Bean’s Outdoor Discover Schools and pay for a class.
High tech for a company that was founded on a four-page, mail-order catalog.
“Today’s consumer is evolving and advancing,” said L.L. Bean spokesman Mac McKeever. “We wanted to make sure we were able to offer our shopping channels in any manner and outlet that was most conducive for folks, whether it be brick-and-mortar in-store, or online, or through a mobile app, or through our catalogers, or on the phone.”
Where restaurant apps are about saving time, many retailer apps are about saving money. Hobby Lobby’s app features digital coupons. Kmart’s offers special deals and Friday freebies. Walmart’s has a “savings catcher” that refunds you money if, within three days of a purchase, another local store sells the item you just bought for a lower price.
But time is also money, and retailers know that, too. Starting next month, Walmart will add an express return feature that lets app users return purchases in store in 30 seconds. Lowe’s app shows if the item you want is in stock at the local store and it gives you an interactive store map to get you there.
The Home Depot app takes project help one step further. Literally. Tell the app your shoe size and it’ll convert that to serve as a tape measure, allowing you to pace off a room and figure out how many real feet of flooring (or whatever else) you’ll need.
Shopping with Larry
But how well do these apps work? Gilbert, from the SJ, swears by several of them, including Walmart and Dunkin’ Donuts. He trotted them out for a small shopping trip for this story.
“You don’t even need a wallet if you don’t want to,” he said, pulling up the Walmart app in the parking lot.
Like so many retailer and restaurant apps, Walmart’s app stores credit or debit card information. Handy for paying fast. Not so great if you’re worried about someone going on a shopping binge with your phone or hacking into some database.
It also stores your purchase history. Handy when you want to replenish your supply of that purple stuff in the green can, but you can’t remember what it’s called. Not so great if you’re worried about having your purchases tracked and monitored.
“There’s a trade-off with personal information,” Gilbert acknowledged. “I don’t have a problem with it. Some people do.”
In the store, he logged into the app (it requires a pass code to get past the first screen as security against a stranger’s shopping binge) then went shopping as normal. Body wash in one aisle. Almond milk in another. (Sorry, Larry. TMI?)
At the self checkout he scanned the items as usual, then, when it came time to pay, scanned the QR code on the checkout screen with his phone. The Walmart app should have used his stored credit card to pay for the $7.35 worth of items.
It did not.
“Something went wrong. Please use another card or cash,” the checkout screen flashed.
Gilbert’s credit card had been compromised a couple weeks earlier. He’d forgotten to store a new one in the app. He tried updating it there, at the checkout, but —
“They really don’t want to let you pay,” he said, as another “Something went wrong” flashed on the screen.
Ultimately, he used another credit card and paid the old-fashioned way. But while paying with the app didn’t work (to be fair, that was more user error than app error), Savings Catcher did. Gilbert scanned the receipt and immediately got a pop up notice on his phone: The app would track prices in the area and let him know if his body wash could be found cheaper elsewhere in the area. (The almond milk was a store brand not sold elsewhere, so no price tracking.)
Turned out Walmart was the cheapest for body wash this time, so no rebate. But that’s not always the case. Gilbert has earned $60 this year, money stored in his app and waiting to be spent at Walmart like a gift card.
On to Dunkin’ Donuts!
The app stores credit card, rewards card and ordering information — disconcerting for people who don’t want a corporation tracking their habits, but fabulous for people who want to get in, get out and get it for cheap.
On this day, the app told Gilbert that it’s 87-cent coffee day. A nearly $2 savings. He’d also get Dunkin’ rewards points for the purchase, plus extra ones for using the app. And his credit card — which, he noted, he’s careful to pay off every month — would award points for the purchase.
In the app, he chose which Dunkin’ location he wanted (there are a lot in the area), chose his coffee, customized it to his liking and paid with the stored credit card (this one worked). So the coffee wouldn’t turn from iced to lukewarm by the time he got there, the app would hold his order until he was ready to pick it up.
In the Dunkin’ parking lot, he clicked on “I’m walking in.”
A minute later, he was walking out.
No line, no wait, coffee in hand. Phone in pocket.
“If Walmart had worked right,” he said, “I wouldn’t have needed a wallet today.”
Not every app is for everyone. Some require more effort to use than they’re worth. Some are useful only to frequent customers and loyalty card members. Others have features — like store finder and receipt saver — that just aren’t that helpful day to day.
Milly Welsh, owner of Zebralove Web Solutions in Limington, Maine, has been creating websites for 11 years and developing apps for three. She said there’s one big thing all apps should do: work.
“The big thing is the communication part of that. You want to make sure you get an order. If somebody places an order on your app and they show up at your restaurant and their food’s not done, they’re going to be pretty mad,” she said. “Getting that part down (is important) and making it pretty easy to use. Usability is key in mobile apps.”
It can be an expensive venture for brick-and-mortar businesses, which might pay $15,000 for even a simple app. And it might not pay off. There is, Welsh said, a lot of “bailout” in apps. People download them, try them out, then hit “uninstall.”
But when they work, when the app lets you skip the line or measure your floor with your feet or save money, people love them.
Just not the people you’re sailing by in line.
NOTE: This story was edited on Oct. 23, 2017, to remove a reference to Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli’s app. That app is good only for the Colorado location.
Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor, opens Walmart’s app before shopping.
Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor, opens Walmart’s app before shopping.
Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor, tries to pay using the credit card stored in his Walmart app. (Spoiler: The card didn’t work.)
Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor, keeps trying to pay using the credit card stored in his Walmart app. (Turns out it was user error.)
After scanning his Walmart receipt, Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor, confirms that the “savings catcher” feature of the store’s app is searching for lower prices.
Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor, opens the Dunkin’ Donuts app. He’s the guy you probably glared at last week when he skipped the line and got his coffee before you.
Larry Gilbert Jr., the Sun Journal’s audience engagement editor, scrolls through his options on the Dunkin’ Donuts app.