Apple App Clips — what retailers need to know

App Clips are streamlined versions of iPhone apps that provide on-the-spot solutions. They are activated by scanning codes.

Richard von Kaufmann
5 min readJan 25, 2021

QR (Quick Response) codes have been around for 27 years. In Japan and China, they have been used on packaging and tickets for over ten years, and in recent times they have become ubiquitous for both online and physical mobile payments — mainly due to their use within the WeChat and Alipay ecosystems. However, in the West, QR codes have yet to be wholeheartedly adopted in the retailer sector. This article explores whether Apple’s radical rethink of how QR codes can work will bring the everyday efficiencies already enjoyed by hundreds of millions of shoppers in East Asia.

Apple’s more aesthetically pleasing App Clip design should make it more appealing to retailers.

QR usage has improved since Apple and some Android brands enabled QR code reading via phone cameras (i.e. no need to download an unknown third-party scanning app). But their usage is still spasmodic, and many remain sceptical as to their benefits. However, the mega-success of QR codes in China and Japan shows that adoption can be rapid when people find practical uses cases.

Apple believes it can now enable such uses cases to be implemented via the new ability to instantly activate streamlined versions of apps (called App Clips) to meet immediate needs — for example, using an electric scooter, skipping payment queues, or getting in-store product info.

The future is contactless

QR-based mobile payments are an everyday experience in China and Japan. 98% of urban residents are using digital wallets speeding up transactions and almost eliminating the need for cash or card payments.

COVID-19 is pushing a shift towards contactless payments and Apple Pay is accepted by two-thirds of merchants globally. So along with other providers, mobile contactless payment is becoming a growing habit.

As with QR codes, the use of NFC (Near Field Communications) interactions outside of the mobile payment sector has been lacklustre, but Apple also aims to change this as App Clips can also be activated with just an NFC phone tap.

MIAM fashion brand in Helsinki is piloting a shop window App Clip interaction (using the Pricetap App). If you have iOS 14.3 on your iPhone you can scan this App Clip for real.

Apple is actively promoting App Clips to iOS tech developers but they remain largely unknown to the general public due to the current low number of implementations.

App Clips can also be activated with standard QR codes using iPhones with iOS 14

Apple says it is committed to App Clips as it believes they will help overcome app apathy since people don’t need to download a full-app to get the instant benefits or sample the experience.

QR codes were originally designed for the Japanese automotive industry where aesthetics was not a key consideration. Many upmarket retailers object to their industrial looks. To help combat this and create noticeable differentiation, Apple is also providing ways to generate the more visually pleasant App Clip codes. When there are enough uses cases deployed across various sectors, people will learn to recognise them.

App Clip Usage for Retailers

Fashion and shopping apps, which tend to have better functionality than mobile websites, can inspire more customer loyalty via additional features such as persona style recommendations and wish lists.

For example, The Yes app, which uses a Tinder-like mechanism for review clothes to generate style recommendations, enables users to share their wish lists via App Clip links that can be shared in Apple Messages and opened in Safari.

Although Apple has not yet formally promoted App Clips to the public, numerous articles are starting to appear. Here is a quote form a Vogue Business article: ‘App Clips debuts at a time of increased mobile usage coupled with consumer fatigue with branded apps. Its supporters say it offers a low-friction way for customers to preview new apps and for brands to increase conversions.’

The Vogue article also points out that apps can be extraordinary valuable as they enable easier communication with customers and app users tend to purchase more frequently. So if brands can quickly demonstrate initial value via App Clips there is a significant upside.

This Wired UK article puts forward the idea that ‘The coronavirus factor could come into play in Apple’s favour here. If personal safety pushes iPhone owners to try out App Clips for the first time, after years of declining to use similar NFC/QR code schemes, and it works as advertised, that’s it cracked.’

One of the biggest challenges is to overcome the inertia around QR codes created by the previous lacklustre use cases. The need to break from past perceptions is why it’s so critical for Apple to introduce a radically better-looking code design. The new design signifies something new to pay attention to, and users will learn to associate it with pleasant and useful experiences. In addition, design-conscious brands will be more willing to incorporate the codes into their materials.

The ability to automatically sign in with an Apple ID and make Apple Pay payments make App Clips even smoother and swifter. So the ability to further cement Apple Pay dominance plays nicely into Apple’s App Clip strategy. In China, WeChat Mini Programs introduced many more ways to use instant WeChat mobile payments and a similar evolutionary step is likely to play out with App Clips and Apple Pay usage.

Google introduced the ability to have lightweight Android Instant Apps back in 2017 but overlooked the fundamental importance of making them easily accessible in real life (IRL) situations. Apples IRL focus is key to their ability to make App Clip usage mainstream. And, if successful, Google will no doubt replicate a similar solution using Google Accounts and Google Pay—but it’s unlikely they will move away from the classic QR design since Android’s strengths are in broad interoperability— as opposed to Apple’s closed vertical integration. But by riding on the coattails of elegant App Clip experiences, even ugly QR codes will become more loved in the West.

My startup Pricetap is betting on App Clips because it solves the initial use issue, i.e. instant in-store access without having to download the full app. And we were probably the first Finnish app developer to release a meaningful App Clip experience. While nothing is a given regarding the introduction of radical new technological innovations, Apple’s pedigree and muscle mean that App Clips have a solid chance of taking off — it is more a matter of how rapidly. 2021 will be an exciting year to see how App Clips and broader smartphone scanning trends play out.

You can test the shop window App Clip (+NFC contactless) experience at MIAM’s Helsinki shop (Sepänkatu 19)



Richard von Kaufmann

I write about startup life, the fashion industry, and life strategies.