Apple is used to landmark product launches, but September was a singular month for the tech giant. In the space of nine days, Apple released both iOS 9 on Sept. 16 and the new iPhone 6s today (Sept. 25.). Even though customers will be clambering for both products, the biggest consequence of Apple’s big September could be a brewing tussle with retailers and brands.
With the release of iOS 9 comes the addition of content blocking functionality, and as The Wall Street Journal explained, a host of ad-blocking apps have followed. Crystal, one of the most popular ad blockers on the app store, has been downloaded more than 100,000 times since iOS 9 went live. A competing app, Purify, charges users $3.99 per download and has generated $150,000 in a week and a half.
If anything, the rapid popularity of these apps, as explained by MPD CEO Karen Webster, proves that consumers are hungry for some type of content blocking on their mobile phones. However, the issue isn’t as black and white for retailers who simply use ad networks as a vehicle to reach their customers in the hopes of making a sale.
According to Fortune magazine, some ad blockers have been proven to systematically interfere with certain retailers’ mobile sites in iOS 9. Chris Mason, CEO of Branding Brand, tipped Fortune off to the problems, and a subsequent investigation found that the ad-blocker Crystal routinely erases product pictures from retailers’ mobile sites, refuses to allow customers to add items to baskets and sometimes whites out the entire screen.
As of Thursday (Sept. 24), affected retailers include Walmart, Sears, Walgreens.com, Bass Pro Shops, Lululemon and more. Mason told Fortune that if retailers that depend on an ecommerce boost during the holiday shopping season don’t figure out a way to bypass ad-blockers like Crystal, Black Friday could be, well, dark.
“This upcoming holiday season… content-blockers are going to cause a lot of problems,” Mason said. “First, the experience for customers will be lessened. Lots of sites will be missing content, have broken links or customers won’t be able to add certain items to their shopping carts. They’ll probably just think the site is broken, but it’s really their content blocker. Second, retailers will be data-blind, or at least data-dark. It will really impact their ability to make quick judgments.”
Customers can go into their own phones and add specific sites to their ad blockers’ exemption lists, but retailers can’t rely on their consumer bases to work around this issue themselves. Mason noted that merchants can and most likely will be rushing to recode their mobile sites, but with many retail codes frozen Nov. 1 to prepare for the holiday rush, precious times remains for a fix.
Might Apple meet retailers halfway? It’s possible, but the Verge explained why it’s unlikely that Apple will back down completely from its decision to allow ad blockers in iOS 9. Because Google holds such a stranglehold over not only desktop browser usage but also the ads placed on sites through Chrome, Apple might be using its relative supremacy in mobile browsers to block Google’s monetization network from spreading across the expanding mobile ecosystem for years to come.
Of course, Crystal is far from the only ad blocker out there, but that’s part of why the problem could become so confounding for retailers focused on boosting mobile performance. If Apple makes overtures to Crystal on behalf of mobile-stricken merchants, that only plugs one hole in the dike. According to the WSJ, the apps 1Blocker and Adblock Mobile have tens of thousands more downloads than Crystal, and that’s not even taking into account all of the smaller, less popular apps that could blow up at any turn of the market.
While no major problems have been reported yet with other ad blockers, it could only be a matter of time before the changing definitions in these apps’ blacklists throw a wrench into retailers’ mobile commerce strategies. Then again, now is as good a time as any for all of them to seek other ways of engaging their customers that are not only less annoying, but more effective at converting a shopper into a buyer.
If not, it won’t be the Grinch, but ad blockers who stole Christmas.