How Does Mobile App Failure Affect Purchases in Online and Offline Channels?

63 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2018 Last revised: 7 Jan 2021

See all articles by Unnati Narang

Unnati Narang

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Venkatesh Shankar

Texas A&M University - Mays Business School

Sridhar Narayanan

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Date Written: December 13, 2020


Mobile devices account for a majority of transactions between shoppers and marketers. Branded retailer mobile apps have been shown to significantly increase purchases across channels. However, app service failures can lead to decreases in app usage, making app failure prevention and recovery critical for retailers. Does an app failure influence purchases in general and within the online channel in particular? Does it have any spillover effects across other channels? What potential mechanisms explain and what factors moderate these effects? We examine these questions empirically, employing a unique dataset from an omnichannel retailer. We leverage a natural experiment of exogenous systemwide failure shocks in this retailer’s mobile app and related data to examine the causal impact of app failures on purchases in all channels using a difference-in-differences approach. We investigate two potential mechanisms behind these effects – channel substitution and brand preference dilution. We also analyze shopper heterogeneity in the effects using a theoretically-driven moderator approach as well as a data-driven machine learning method. Our analysis reveals that although an app failure has a significant overall negative effect on shoppers’ frequency, quantity, and monetary value of purchases across channels, the effects are heterogeneous across channels and shoppers. Interestingly, the decreases in purchases across channels are driven by purchase reductions in brick-and-mortar stores and not in the online channel. A significant decrease in app engagement post failure explains the overall drop in purchases. Brand preference dilution after app failure explains the fall in store purchases, while channel substitution post failure explains the preservation of purchases in the online channel. Surprisingly, purchases rise for a small group of shoppers who were close to the retailer’s store at the time of app failure. Furthermore, shoppers with a higher monetary value of past purchases, and less recent purchases are less sensitive to app failures. The results suggest that app failures lead to an annual revenue loss of about $2.4-$3.4 million for the retailer in our data. About 47% shoppers contribute to about 70% of the loss. We outline targeted failure prevention and service recovery strategies that retailers could employ.

Keywords: service failure, mobile marketing, mobile app, retailing, omnichannel, difference-in-differences, natural experiment, causal effects

JEL Classification: M31, L81, C01, C23, C90

Suggested Citation

Narang, Unnati and Shankar, Venkatesh and Narayanan, Sridhar, How Does Mobile App Failure Affect Purchases in Online and Offline Channels? (December 13, 2020). Mays Business School Research Paper No. 3144434, Stanford University Graduate School of Business Research Paper No. 18-18, Available at SSRN: or

Unnati Narang (Contact Author)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ( email )

601 E John St
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
N/A (Fax)


Venkatesh Shankar

Texas A&M University - Mays Business School ( email )

Wehner 401Q, MS 4353
College Station, TX 77843-4218
United States
979-845-3246 (Phone)


Sridhar Narayanan

Stanford Graduate School of Business ( email )

655 Knight Way
Stanford, CA 94305-5015
United States
650-723-9675 (Phone)

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