Free Mobile App Ideas for 4 “Boring” Businesses (plus How to Make an Affordable Mobile App)

Mobile internet usage is doing nothing but rising and will continue to for at least the next decade or so. At the bottom of the article there will be some links to stats and info about that so you can do some research, as well as platforms you can use to make an app yourself, more affordably than hiring a development company to do it from scratch.

What I want to talk about are some ideas that less-sexy businesses like dry cleaners and tire shops can use as inspiration to create their own mobile app, and how this can benefit you. So open your minds and get ready to think outside your box about new ways to market your products and services. Don’t worry about cost for now… we’ll talk about that after the ideas.

App Content & Features Ideas

Tires & Tire Services

Purchasing tires can be like purchasing underwear – you know you need them and have to buy them, but don’t necessarily want to as it seems like your hard-earned money would bring more satisfaction if spent on something pretty or fun… like a designer handbag or electronic gadget. So how does a tire shop possibly create an app that customers would want to use and ultimately would bring them into the store for tires or service? How about…

  • offering a daily or weekly deal in the app exclusively for app users
  • allowing fast inventory and price-checking
  • pushing out a reminder to a customer who needs their tires rotated or some other service on a schedule
  • pushing out seasonal tips about tire care
  • giving a “guide to long-lasting tire care” so people can save money & not have to replace them prematurely
  • letting customers schedule an appointment so they don’t have to call
  • letting customers tweet you a question easily
  • giving people a fun badge for checking in so many times using the app
  • randomly giving people a special incentive after so many checkins using the app
  • write a “tire buying for dummies” guide or something geared to first time tire purchasers to help walk them through it
  • allow parents to purchase tires for their college kids via your app, so all the student has to do is show up to get them put on
Mr. Tire has a similar app you can examine to give you some real-life inspiration! Note the wonderful way they keep track of all your vehicles and maintenance information (though they have a few comments about this needing a better user experience… take comments to heart and make corrections once an app is in the market.)

Dry Cleaners

Some folks frequent a dry cleaner regularly, yet never get a break on cost. An app with incentives, deals and checkin rewards is like a gift to these repeat customers, and possibly an incentive to people using a competitor if you offer…

  • price information and cost breakdown of different items
  • hours and details about turnaround time for cleaning
  • secret checkin rewards: after so many checkins, give the customer the cleaning order they are picking up on the house or for 50% off
  • daily or weekly deal
  • special care guide for unusual things people don’t think about protecting like household linens or wool coats
  • incentives for special occasions like bulk wedding apparel cleaning or party linen cleaning
  • if you pickup laundry, let customers schedule pickup and returns in the app
Klinke Cleaners has a similar app you can check out… look at all their screenshots – they’ve done a wonderful job of letting you know if your order is “Ready” or “In Process” and has the promised dates, plus they have a receipt prepared so you know exactly what it will cost when you pick up your clothes. Way cool!

Small Restaurants with Daily Specials

In downtown Kansas City we have a number of great restaurants that offer a unique daily special – from soup du jour to multiple entrees, what a favorite place is having can sway a regular who works downtown for lunch.

Many of these restaurants have a Facebook page where they update information, but a great co-marketing opportunity exists to band together in an area (downtown KC, Queens, Culver City, etc.) to save costs while keeping customers coming into all the restaurants in the area. Try this:

  • share cost of design & setup of the app
  • share the story and profile of each restaurant in the app – let new people get to know you!
  • offer one or more daily deals
  • post full menu for every restaurant in the app (plus hours/map)
  • update daily specials for all the different restaurants in one convenient place for people
  • let customers request a daily special… you could even make it a game & name it for the customer or let people vote for the one they want
  • let customers place an order via the app for quick pickup
  • let customers place an order for delivery from any of the participating restaurants and share cost of the drivers too
  • sell a gift certificate that can be redeemed at any of the restaurants
  • ask for the customer’s birthdate and send them a freebie or just a nice “Happy Birthday!” push notification on their special day
  • let customers reserve a table for parties of 5 or more as an exclusive app feature
  • create checkin rewards and incentives for checking in using the app
  • create fun “battles” between restaurants and get fans to eat them, then comment & share to pick the “winner”
  • let customers leave comments about their favorite meals, or rate you if you want to offer Yelp!-type reviews

Eats Soho is not this exact type of app but will give you a little flavor of what you could create. You will have an advantage other companies don’t when marketing your app to customers: posters, table tents, mini-cards and more can be created and shared for consistent in-store marketing, and every mention on a social media platform is an indirect promoter of your restaurant from the others fan bases, as the app will lead them to you. Your cooperative efforts will likely be press-worthy locally or possibly nationally depending on your pr efforts.

Convenience Store/Gas Station

An app for a convenience store & gas station probably doesn’t sound like much fun, but I swear it could be. Some people go to their local convenience store nearly every day… for breakfast, for junk food, for coffee, for gas or even a lottery ticket. These very regular customers are usually not rewarded with much more than a smile of recognition, but you can up the ante and turn them into raving (and sharing) fans with a little attention to marketing and a fun mobile app. Here’s what I’d do if I owned one of these businesses:

  • deliver a fun badge for checkin milestones when checking in using the app
  • offer random gifts at certain checkin milestones – imagine checking in and being told to “Come get a free candy bar!” (or lottery ticket, or $1 bill, or pack of gum… the gift ideas are endless given the merchandise mix)
  • post the gas prices every time they change, so customers can check prices before heading over to get gas
  • offer a small coupon reward for customers sharing the app on Twitter or Facebook with their friends
  • ask for the customer’s birthdate and send them a freebie or just a nice “Happy Birthday!” push notification on their special day
  • give a discount on gas for checkin if customers want to come inside to pay for it
  • provide a form for customers to request merchandise they’d like you to sell… this is free feedback for you!
  • run polls to gauge customer interest on different brands, like Coke vs Pepsi products, so you know what to focus on selling
  • offer weekly or monthly promotions, such as a free regular cup of coffee for every purchase of a breakfast sandwich
  • if you own more than one of these stores, offer maps & details for store locations
  • post a different daily deal every day and track results afterward to see which are most profitable

Here’s a neat example of this type of app from GetGo, a convenience store, gas station and car wash. Doesn’t this look like a fun thing to promote in your stores and at the pump?

Mobile App Platforms Make This Possible

I’ve been researching mobile apps a lot because I am about to dip my own toe in the app market waters and use one of these two platforms to create my first app. Why use a platform vs. having one developed? Quite simply, cost. As a designer (and small business like you may be) I can create content and graphics and do the data entry work to set up an app myself, but can’t develop it. So I’ve been looking into platforms that do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

The Shoutem platform is the one I’m leaning toward for my first app, because of the customization features. As someone focused on branding, I want to be able to have some control over the buttons, tabs, icons and screen design to make the app uniquely Fresh ID’s, and not a carbon copy of 200 other apps.

Pricing begins at around $50 a month to get both iPhone, Android & HTML5 web apps, which is REALLY so much cheaper than if you tried to pay a dev company to build and maintain those three platforms. I know one app maker (a client, actually, so I have this firsthand) who has spent over $100k on his mobile app and I think it’s only available for iPhone so far. App design and development can be quite costly. If you don’t have a designer handy, Shoutem will even design the app for you for $450 or $950.00, which is also pretty inexpensive (for example, if we designed the app screens and did setup for you at Fresh ID it would likely start at around $2k.) So the pricing is right here, and the features are awesome.

Conduit AppMaker is also a compelling platform. Pricing is a little better than Shoutem’s – they offer options from $29 to 79 a month, or unlimited one-time fee of $1299 gets you all the Premium features with no extra cost. They have many features and third-party integrations available, like Yelp! reviews for your restaurant or business and ecommerce integration. So for some of you this may be the best option. In April 2012, J.P. Morgan paid $100 million for 7% of Conduit, so I feel good about their long-term viability.

If you want to research, there are many, many app platforms like these, and there may be some platforms specific to your industry that make getting an app out the door both affordable and reasonably easy to execute. But do your homework – look into the company history and investment so you don’t get stuck with something that shuts down in two months.

Why? The Stats Suggest You Need to Start Experimenting with Mobile

I promised you some stats to help open your eyes, and here are a few that have helpful information to ponder:

What are you doing to either extend your marketing reach to your customers and prospects using mobile devices, or meet existing customers needs by allowing them to perform tasks on mobile devices?

We’d love to hear what you’re thinking about, and will be blogging about the experience of launching mobile apps as we get them online and venture into this new world of design and dev. We will also be talking about monetization experiments and what we learn from others regarding making money with mobile apps.

I’m currently reading App Empire by Chad Mureta and recommend that you get it if this is a totally new universe for you too. For just $2.99 there is an interesting looking Kindle ebook called Create iPhone Apps that Rock by Alicia Morga. It’s a year old but has some advice that seems solid about the process involved in app creation, from naming to publishing, so might be helpful.