Both! At least in the short term. In the long run I would put my money on HTML5, certainly when it comes to the right strategy for customers. It’s not that I don’t like apps; I can clearly see their advantage when it comes to specialised tasks. They have to be the Rolls Royce in your arsenal of customer interaction touch points. So far I have seen only a few but many Tata Nanos.

Apps are great when they provide functionality that goes beyond that of HTML5. In the case of consumer apps it has to be something that strengthens the bond between the consumer and the brand. In the case of B2B or internal apps (i.e. shop assistant, POS, receipt of goods,…) it’s something that should make operations more efficient.

When thinking about apps in a retail environment, I’d advise finding an answer to the following possible arguments before starting the development phase:

  1. Apps are a barrier. They keep consumers from shopping on impulse and you also need to educate your customers about your app. Do not expect the market place to do that for you.
  2. Apps don’t work across platforms. Thus a retailer/manufacturer has to gamble on which device class is predominantly used by their clients. This is not a bet I would make. The risk of shutting out 75% of potential customers large margin of error. In fact, today no one can predict which mobile operating system will prevail, so hedging your bets across mobile devices and the web might be the wiser strategy.
  3. Apps are more expensive to maintain. Whilst with HTML5 you will have one mobile web you’ll need to maintain and support. With mobile apps you’ll have at least three. If you want to support the three main players in the market; RIM, Apple and Google, that’s very expensive. In theory there are frameworks who promise to be cross platform, but it remains an open question as to just how successful and good they will be in real life.
  4. Apps have to be great. One can’t get away with a ‘me-too’ app. Studies have shown that consumers use only seven apps on a regular basis. 95% of all installed apps will be removed by the user after 30 days. So, unless a company has a really great idea for an app that will keep the user engaged and active on it, I’d challenge the effectiveness of a mobile app.
  5. Don’t create another silo. Make sure your native app can re-use the business logic and objects you have already established with your online commerce platform.

I love apps. Don’t get me wrong. And for games and utilities such as London’s tube station finder with augmented reality, they are definitely way forward. I do, however, question if they make that much sense when it comes to retail.