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Big-Box Stores Like Target Think These New Apps Can Defeat Amazon

Can they stop the showrooming monster?

Not so long ago, retailers struggled mightily to direct shoppers away from browsers and over to their newfangled branded apps without much success. This holiday season, however, might prove to be the apps' tipping point thanks to more sophisticated tools at retailers' disposal, including mobile mapping, payments, price-comparison tools, image recognition features and beacon technology. In fact, these new features might even give retailers a fighting chance against Amazon.

Target, Walmart and Kohl's are all traditional big-box retailers with new, souped-up mobile apps this year aimed at steering shoppers away from Amazon. Target, for example, recently launched store-specific mapping software that helps shoppers navigate its sprawling retail centers.

Meanwhile, Kohl's revamped its app in November with a mobile wallet that lets loyalty members redeem offers in-store. The strategy centers around leveraging marketers' physical locations since the bulk of holiday shopping still takes place in-store. "All of those retailers have a competitive advantage when you're in the store—they can build context into their apps that Amazon can't build," explained Jason Goldberg, vp of commerce strategy at Razorfish.

But others are skeptical if these mobile efforts can make even a dent in in-store sales. Ben Reubenstein, president of Possible Mobile, questioned the success of the slew of new apps because they tend to only focus on one part of the shopping experience. "I would say that [retailers are] doing a great job at innovative technology that can give you more information, but they need to stay true to the whole physical experience," he said.

Still, other retailers are investing in new mobile commerce features this year that drive sales on smartphones and tablets. Macy's recently launched an app where shoppers snap pictures of something they like in order to find similar products on Macys.com. The app is geared toward younger consumers who are increasingly using social platforms like Instagram to find things to buy.

"This was pointed at millennials," said Serena Potter, general vp of marketing strategy, Macys.com. "Millennials are a very important consumer segment … and [we are] trying to come up with new ways for them to shop that keeps it fun, engaging, interesting and a little bit different from the traditional methods of shopping."

Macy's image recognition app is based on similar technology that Amazon used to make showrooming mainstream several years ago. While Macy's app is an ambitious effort to drive sales, apps without added in-store bells and whistles are unlikely to steal online sales from Amazon. "To me, they’re all trying to me-too Amazon," noted Nikki Baird, an analyst at RSR Research. "The younger [the shopper,] the more advantage Amazon seems to have."

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