If you haven’t heard the phrase "there’s an app for that", then it’s time you stepped into the 21st century. Because with 11 million users and counting, this latest smartphone technology looks set to transform the world of retail.

What’s more, the rise in phone ’apps’ could well have direct relevance to the bakery trade, which uses a sales model well-suited to the advantages an app can deliver. This is especially true now that an independent coffee shop in Birmingham, Urban Coffee Company, has beaten the big chains by launching an app for ordering coffees in stores, aimed at fostering a loyal customer base (see news, pg 8).

"Many people still find themselves confused by the term ’apps’," explains freelance programmer James Tann, who currently works for Sony. "This is because there are so many different versions, they can be quite difficult to define. ’App’ simply stands for ’application’ and it refers to a piece of software that runs from a mobile phone, and interacts directly with the internet. So you might have an app that delivers you content from a particular website in a managed way best-suited to phone access. Businesses like bakeries can take advantage of this to make it easier for customers to order from their phones."

As usual, the US is leading the way, with several bakeries having developed their own apps to speed customer ordering direct from their phones. Barry’s Bagels, which has four stores in Ohio and another in Michigan, recently developed an iPhone app after seeing an increase in sales from online ordering. The software allows people to browse their menu and order from them immediately. On top of this, customers can save their favourite and past orders, making it even easier to order from them. Other features include a restaurant locator, which gives directions to the nearest outlet.

Meanwhile in the UK, US-led Starbucks has also made its own app, enabling customers to manage their Starbucks card (a prepaid cash card used in their stores) direct from their phone, as well as browse menu options.

In the UK many bakeries are still deliberating the possible advantages of apps. "What I’m getting out of what exists already is good enough," says Andrew Auld, managing director and baker at The Loaf in Crich, Derbyshire. "We have a website and a blog and use Twitter daily. We use apps to send out our tweets, but don’t feel we need our own personal app."

So while Auld is happy to use a pre-developed app to make his life easier, he’s not yet convinced the investment could benefit his customers. He’s not alone. Very few British bakeries have decided to make customer-facing apps, and most find that posting ’tweets’ via social networking site Twitter is a perfectly serviceable way to update tech-savvy customers as to the latest fresh batch from the oven.

"We have decided to hold off on creating an app for the time being and see how the industry develops," says Irene Lentsch, marketing manager of The Albion Bakery in Shoreditch, London. "We find tweeting and telephone ordering cover most of our business needs."

But with more than 11 million UK users, smartphones and apps are an essential part of everyday life. The question currently is whether a customer-facing app is the route to follow, or if this smartphone software could have a more effective function for internal processes.

"I would think that apps that take orders wouldn’t be viable for most bakers," explains George Thomas, sales advisor at Appdevelopersuk.com. "I would recommend a bakery went down the route of an app that had menus and recipes, rather than ordering facilities. The processes they would need to put in place at the bakery to dispatch the orders would be quite expensive."

So what counts as expensive? "Cost will vary depending on what you want," says Thomas. "You should expect to invest at least £3,000 or, if you want to use ordering technology, £15£20,000. It will take between six weeks and three months to complete an app, depending on what it is and how many people are working on it."

It is also important to factor in marketing costs when creating an app. "A good app needs great branding and PR," adds Thomas. "There is no point spending a lot of money on an app if you don’t market it, because no-one will know it’s there."

Accessibility is another important issue. Once your app is ready, it won’t be available to everyone with a smartphone. Businesses therefore face the challenge of adapting their iPhone app for other platforms, such as Android, Palm, Symbian, Blackberry and Java.

"You need to consider there are different markets out there," explains Thomas. "It is not easy to transpose one app on to another market. It will cost about the same and will take roughly the same amount of time to create the same app for a different market."

Before you decide that this seems like a large investment for dubious returns, however, it’s worth considering that apps do have considerable advantages over other internet marketing devices. Even if creating revenue through ordering isn’t an option, an app can still have a useful function. Apps often work for a business in a way that is very similar to a website, the main difference being that, with an app, the icon is constantly in view on the phone. This means that the customer is continuously exposed to your branding.

If you’re still not convinced an app development is right for your customers, it’s still worth considering apps that might serve your business. The development of this software means that those firms whose staff have smartphones could have access to an app, which allows them to manage various business processes more seamlessly.

One bakery currently deploying this logic to a profitable end is Warburtons. It has created a Blackberry app to streamline its day-to-day internal operations. The app alerts the necessary people of purchase orders, and emails the relevant parties. It also allows users to review a purchase order, release it, reject it or place it on hold and all this can be done from the smartphone.

In fact, the huge popularity of the smartphone means that it is highly probable that an app has already had an impact on your business without you even realising it. Many smartphone users download apps such as Yelp!, which can help people find anything from shops, cafés and bakeries to petrol stations and pet shops. So it pays to find out what apps your customers are using, and ensure that, where relevant, your business is as well-represented as it can be in relation to them.

Many bakeries are yet to be convinced, arguing that the emergent technology is not yet as cheap nor effective as current options such as Twitter. "Most people are already on Twitter or signed up to our blog," argues Auld. "It is important to use the breadth of technology available, because people follow things in different ways. People who don’t follow Twitter can still read our tweets, because we link them to our website and blog. You’d be missing out if you focused on one techno-logy exclusively."

With technology continuing apace, however, the likelihood is that, sooner or later, we will all be engaging with apps for a great number of bakeries. Taking possible drawbacks into consideration, creating an app is certainly not something to enter into lightly. Although the advantages speak for themselves, small businesses may not feel they have the capital to take what some consider such a risk. One thing for certain is that the app market is well worth keeping an eye on. In fact, there is probably an app that can do that for you.

Apps for you?

l Kitchen iQ (from DayMark Safety Systems) a free collection of tools designed to help bakers and foodservice professionals avoid common food safety pitfalls and offering easy-to-implement solutions.
l Easy Task Manager (from Orionbelt.com) a digital to-do list that prioritises tasks and adds them to a calendar, all for free.
l Minibooks (from freshbooks.com) manage clients, send invoices, run timers and record payments on-the-go. The restricted version is free and the full app costs £8.99.
l Scoot (from scoot.co.uk) A free business finder with a quick search function that allows you to update the info with an easy to use Add a Business tool. Find information about local suppliers of products and services wherever you are.
l BikeHub (from bikehub.co.uk) Do you cater for people looking for cyclist-friendly cafés? This free app uses OpenCycleMap mapping and will soon have a café finders facility. This is based on the OpenStreetMap project, which is being called the "Wikipedia of maps" a worldwide community of 300,000 people toiling to keep the most up-to-date maps possible. Is your business on there?
l Vouchercloud (from vouchercloud.com) This allows businesses to issue mobile voucher codes and is currently being used by Coffee Republic. The app detects the user’s location and presents discounts or offers to take in store.
l Sweet Spot (from iTunes.apple.com) A free app to help people find bakeries and ice cream shops, wherever they are. It pinpoints your location.
l Poynt (from poynt.com) Another free nifty business locator, but this time for Blackberry users.