JCPenney builds one of the first shopping apps for Apple Watch; an exclusive look

JCPenney, a department store known for catering to bargain shoppers, is one of the first retailers to design an app for the Apple Watch ahead of its launch last Friday. JCPenney said the app’s simplicity is deliberate, in part because no one quite knows how shoppers are going to use the device, and in part because the retailer had a tight timeline to build it. CREDIT: JCPenney)

The Apple Watch is widely viewed as Apple’s first foray into the luxury market: It carries a price tag of up to $17,000 and is being sold at upscale boutiques and department stores such as Colette in Paris and Maxfield in Los Angeles.

So it may seem surprising that JCPenney — a department store known for catering to bargain shoppers — was one of the small group of retailers that rushed to design an app for the smartwatch ahead of its launch last Friday. Is there really much overlap between the affluent, early-adopters who buy the Apple Watch and the serial deal hunters that frequent their stores?

It’s too early to know, but JCPenney is looking at it this way: The retailer estimates that more than 50 percent of its 86 million customers are iPhone users, and so there’s a good chance that many of those Apple devotees will try out the tech giant’s latest device.

“We have to move fast, and this is a risky proposition. No one’s ever done this before,” said Mike Rodgers, JCPenney’s executive vice president for omnichannel.

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Two JCPenney engineers worked at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, for about three months to build the Apple Watch app. Because of the secrecy surrounding the project, Rodgers said he “had no idea” exactly what his staffers were developing until they returned to home base.

Rodgers said he imagines that the primary case for the Apple Watch app will be as a “shopping companion” to customers who are out and about at JC Penney stores. That’s why one function will allow them to look for an out-of-stock item in a different color or size at the four JC Penney stores closest to their location. The app will even give them turn-by-turn directions to the store that has the item in stock.

And if you’ve saved an item in your online shopping basket while browsing on your desktop, smartphone or tablet, you can call up that list of items on the Apple Watch app to identify them easily in store.

The other core functions of the app seem geared toward online shoppers, such as a gift ideas feature that suggests items that cost between $25 and $100. At launch, JCPenney will build that list with items that are “trending” on its website, but in the future, they could curate it for a special occasion such as Father’s Day or graduation. If you like one of the products, you can add it to a list of saved items and then easily purchase it from your phone, tablet or desktop later.

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JCPenney’s Apple Watch app can also quickly check the status of an online order to see where it is along its journey to your doorstep.

For now, that short list of functions is all that the Apple Watch app will allow shoppers to do. But JCPenney said that simplicity is deliberate, in part because no one quite knows how shoppers are going to use the device, and in part because the retailer had a tight timeline to build it.

The company expects to develop new iterations of the app as it hears from customers about how they are using the Apple Watch.

If JCPenney’s app design is a preview of how the broader retail industry may use the Apple Watch, it seems that the playbook for these new devices will be a similar to their strategies for the phone.

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With traditional smartphone apps, many retailers have found that shoppers do not use them when they’re on the subway killing time or on the couch at home unwinding: They’re using them inside the store to do price comparisons, read customer reviews or look for out-of-stock colors and sizes. So when it comes to the Apple Watch, it appears JCPenney — and probably other retailers — will be looking to deliver even more immediacy and efficiency to that connection between physical shopping and online browsing.

“When someone’s in the store shopping, the easier you can make it for them to get information about the shopping experience, the better it’s going to be,” Rodgers said.