As the holiday shopping season begins, more consumers are turning to their smartphones and tablets to make purchases -- or at least to guide their buying decisions. A recent Javelin Strategy Group study found that in the past year consumers made nearly $21 billion in purchases using mobile devices.
If the holiday season is important to your business and you don't have a mobile app, now is the time to seriously consider creating one. Hiring an app developer may be beyond your budget, but a number of lower-cost services and platforms can help.
While all app-building tools allow non-coders to build mobile apps, many do little more than repackage content from your social media sites. That's probably not the most effective approach for a small business trying to lure holiday shoppers.
Here are five of the most effective platforms that can help you build and deploy an app customized for your business that includes your own original content, as well as easy ways for mobile users to find your company, ask questions, get special updates and deals, share your information with others, and perhaps even make direct purchases -- all without knowing how to code. Plus some tips for what to do once your app is created:
MobiCart is a platform that focuses on building apps that include a mobile shopping cart. It also supports multiple languages and currencies and can be customized for your business. MobiCart apps run on iOS, Android and the mobile web. There's a free but limited plan. Basic paid plans start at $15 per month (iPhone only, up to 100 product listings) or $29 per month (iPhone/iPad, Android, mobile Web, up to 2,000 product listings). A pro plan is $49 per month and comes with unlimited product listings for iOS, Android and mobile web.
2. RunRev LiveCode
This service is not just an app builder, but a software development platform for non-coders. You can use RunRev LiveCode to build an app to serve virtually any business function, including in-app purchasing and information relevant to your app users' current location. It also offers video lessons on building apps and a support forum where users of the platform help answer each others' questions. Mobile apps from this platform run on iOS and Android. Plans start at $20 per month.
This tool offers a variety of app templates, primarily for common types of service businesses. MobileAppLoader's features vary by business category and include appointment scheduling (ideal for salons, day spas, tailors and the like), push notifications, specialized calculators and more. This platform generates Android and iOS apps, and guarantees Apple App Store approval. Pricing varies by business type, but most packages start at $99 for setup, plus $8.99 per month.
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4. App Express
Available features include appointment scheduling, deals and coupons, in-app messaging, payment processing via PayPal, a dashboard for the business owner, and a mobile landing page for the web. App Express apps run on either iOS or Android. Setup costs $199, plus a monthly fee of $75. You can create more than one app for this price, which may be useful for market segmentation.
5. The App Builder
This tool offers a template for retailers and other types of businesses. The App Builder also features social media content integration, a product gallery and more. In addition to apps for iOS and Android, this platform also creates Windows 8 and Windows Phone apps. There's a free trial to build a demo app. You can pay either a $499 lump sum or an annual fee -- $99 per year for iOS or Windows apps, $25 per year for Android.
What to do once your app is built: Most app-building platforms can assist you with getting your app placed in Apple's App Store, the Google Play store or other major app marketplaces. Sometimes there is an additional fee for this service. If you're building an iOS app, there may be a significant wait for Apple to make a decision about your app, and the company can choose to reject any app from its store. It's usually faster and easier to place Android apps in the Google Play store.
You will need to market your app, so be sure to tell people where they can download it and which mobile platforms it's available for. Posters in your store or office, mentions in advertising and links from your website can help. Also, demonstrating your app in-person to customers and prospects can be compelling.
Corrections: A previous version of this story misstated the platforms MobileAppLoader generates apps for. It works on Android and iOS. Additionally, the pricing information for The App Builder has been updated.