Furniture iPhone apps – fabulous or futile?

As IKEA and House of Fraser join the media frenzy, the question rises as to whether furniture shops can justify an iPhone app
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The Independent Online

This month, House of Fraser and IKEA have unveiled iPhone apps which showcase their 2010 catalogues. But, the jury is out as to whether it makes sense for a furniture shop to launch an iPhone app.

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With more than 110,000 iPhone apps flooding the market and two billion downloaded, it's no wonder the interiors industry wants to tap into the market. These days, iPhone apps exist for almost everything from checking property price information on the go to helping interior designers maximize a space.

Yet, critics maintain that iPhone apps won't work for everything. The challenge for furniture shops, or indeed any brand, is to create an app with a compelling need for users to open and use regularly. The dizzying choice of iPhone apps on the market has resulted in users becoming picky about which to download.

"You wouldn't want an app if you were selling furniture," according to Bill Westerman, principal and CTO of Create with Context, a design and research firm. The enormous cost of development won’t always be financially sensible. The aim of any app is to tap into customer loyalty, keep shoppers interested in the brand and ultimately make money. Certain firms profit from an iPhone app - eBay have made over $400million off their iPhone app, and the app hasn't even been out the whole year.

It is curious that IKEA have chosen to launch a free iPhone application when very few of their products are sold online (yet). In truth, their app is little more than a portable, digital version of a paper catalogue – useful for inspiration but frustrating that you can't shop through it. Their app allows consumers to flick through the 2010 catalogue; you can pinch the screen to zoom more closely onto the room sets. At present, you can't search by keyword, bookmark products or click to order. IKEA and its brand entertainment agency Cake are inviting feedback and asking for suggestions via voicemail, twitter and email. IKEA says their iPhone app is part of its plan to reduce the paper use in its heavy catalogues.

Meanwhile, House of Fraser's iPhone app Perfect Presents, which launched last week, goes one step further. It helps customers shop for their Christmas gifts by highlighting new arrivals, top bestsellers and latest trends across the home and fashion sectors. Customers can choose gift types by recipient with the Gifts for her/ him/ children/ the home options. Compared to industry rivals, House of Fraser are ahead of the social media game; they already alert their customers about new products and style advice through their blog, facebook page and twitter.

Among tech circles, 2009 will probably be remembered as the year of the iPhone app. Earlier this summer, the auction house Christie's, which is often wrongly perceived as old school, launched an iPhone app showcasing lots digitally. Rather like IKEAs current offering, it is little more than an environmentally friendly paper-free catalogue but Christies plans a live bidding function while IKEA is open to improvements. It is such new functionalities that will justify furniture shops entering the iPhone app market.

Annie Deakin is Editor of furniture and interior design website