NEW YORK: Retailers including Starbucks, Best Buy and Walgreens are enhancing their use of mobile applications in an effort to drive consumer engagement and boost sales.

The Altimeter Group, the consultancy, interviewed 50 mobile specialists representing brand owners, agencies, analysts and software providers to gain an insight into emerging tactics within this field.

Starbucks, the coffee house chain, has cut queuing times in its stores by allowing customers to pay using a smartphone app, with $110m loaded onto these digital "cards", and 20m transactions completed, by early December 2011.

Adam Brotman, general manager of Starbucks' digital ventures unit, reported that the primary goal was to make the purchase process "easier and faster".

"We also want to manage 'feature creep', maintaining the need to keep it simple. Finally, we're keeping a close eye on social channels to hear what's being said about the brand and stay keyed into the next things customers want," he added.

Steve Bendt, director of emerging platforms at Best Buy, stated its application programming interfaces (APIs), or apps providing product details, have augmented the electronics chain's presence "beyond the reach of the store".

"We know not everyone is coming to our product information via the stores; shoppers use other channels, searches, and other commerce applications," he said. "Mobile, to us, is an extension of that; we look at mobile as the accelerator for our APIs," said Bendt.

Walgreens, the pharma retailer, lets customers order refills by scanning prescription barcodes on their phone. It also has quality assurance teams in place for each app platform, like the iOS and Android.

"I'd been part of a team before that said, 'Creating an app that scans a curved barcode is prohibitively expensive,' and we did it at Walgreens and were first to market," said Adam Kmiec, Walgreens' head of social media. "When we commit to something, we give it everything it needs to succeed."

Zappos, the online shoe retailer, offers tablet and smartphone apps which have featured in the iTunes store. These tools currently boast a near five-star rating in Apple's App Store, and have generated over 14,000 user reviews.

Alex Kimse, Zappos' head of mobile, said: "Zappos had never designed for anything like this before. It was an iterative process where a new build went out every week. The team put in a lot of hours and everybody worked seven days a week for 12 weeks."

The Altimeter Group study quoted figures from Nielsen, the research firm, suggesting 45% of wireless device users in the US have a smartphone and 7% possess a tablet, totals which are likely to grow.

Data sourced from The Altimeter Group; additional content by Warc staff