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Why Are We So Reluctant to Pay for Apps?

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Image credit: William Hook/Unsplash

Last week, I spent $5 on a bag of mandarins that looked great in the store but turned out to be horribly bitter. Disappointed would be an understatement; more like crushed. I really need some citrusy goodness in my life right now. They’re still sitting in my fridge, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to summon up the willpower to finish them off.

A waste of money, but I’m not too bothered.

Just a few weeks ago, my buddy Dave mentioned that he had spent $1 to buy Heads Up! in the iOS App Store (to be fair, he was testing it out for his article on fun mobile games to play with friends in the same room) and I balked. “You spent money on a mobile app? Are you insane?

But if I sit back and really think about it, is it really that insane? Why am I okay with throwing away $5 on fruit but reluctant to drop $1 on an app? There’s no hesitation when I buy a $9 Chipotle burrito that I’ll eat and forget about by the time I’m in a carb-induced food coma, yet I could agonize for days deciding whether $3 for a mobile app is really worth it—even one that I know will bring me years of convenience, productivity, and/or entertainment.

Why the disparity?

Is it because mobile apps aren’t “real”? In a study published by Monash University, researchers found that we don’t treat tangible and intangible products the same way:

“The findings from the two brain imaging experiments suggest that people are processing the intangible and tangible objects very differently within their brains.”

Robert Eres

So whereas that $4 latte is easy to rationalize because you’re actually receiving something in exchange, it’s tougher to spend $4 on “nothing.” Although I’m not too sure about this, given the huge rise in popularity of microtransactions in gaming and how easily people fork over cash for virtual goods and benefits. Why haven’t we developed the same accepting attitude toward apps, which are demonstrably more practical?

Is it because mobile apps don’t offer enough value? Definitely not. Are you telling me that you won’t get a full $3 worth of value out of Unified Remote, an app that turns your phone into a universal remote and lets you remotely control your PC in all kinds of ways? This app could change your life for the same price as a family-sized bag of Doritos. It ought to be priced higher, if you ask me. There are tons of other paid apps that provide real-life value, and most can be had for $5 or less. That’s a steal! So no, this obviously can’t be the reason. Anyone who says that paid apps aren’t worth paying for hasn’t thought things through.

n7player costs $4

Is it because our expectations are anchored to free alternatives? It’s hard to justify paying $4 for n7player, an excellent Android music player app, when there are free alternatives like AIMP or Pixel Player that may not be as awesome but are certainly good enough. With so many free apps out there, we’ve come to expect that apps should be free—and then do a double-take when an app wants us to pay money for it. Perhaps it’s unfair, but paid apps need to offer way more value than they’re asking for before people will even consider it a good deal, let alone decide to pay for it.

Is it because the act of purchase is inconvenient? I think this one plays a role for me, as I don’t like to save card details and am therefore forced to type them in every time I buy something online. It’s much easier to toss a bag of fruit into my shopping cart and swipe at the self-checkout register, so there’s less friction in the decision to buy that—even if it brings me less overall value than something as useful as a well-made mobile app.

Is it because I’m afraid of buyer’s remorse? This is another big thing for me, but rationally speaking, it shouldn’t be. Google accepts refunds for up to 48 hours after buying an app on the Google Play Store, no questions asked, limited to once per app. This means there’s literally no risk of buyer’s remorse. Apple isn’t as generous, only allowing refunds for certain valid reasons, but the refund window is up to 90 days. (Although if you have an iPhone, I assume buyer’s remorse over a dollar or two isn’t something you struggle with.)

Moreover, app purchases are always conscious decisions, whereas grabbing a drive-thru frap at Starbucks or buying a combo meal at the food court are unconscious. There’s just more to think about when processing whether to buy an app, and suddenly the price tag seems less reasonable. Even knowing that refunds are available, I know that refunding can be a hassle—and many times I choose to not buy at all than to deal with that.

So what’s my point?

Obviously people are buying mobile apps, so this article is admittedly a tad hyperbolic. But you can’t tell me that you haven’t noticed this phenomenon in your own life, can you? That you find it difficult to justify mobile app purchases, despite their insanely low market prices? Because I definitely do, and I have no idea why. None of the reasons above are satisfying enough to declare as definitive conclusions.

I suppose my conclusion is that my aversion to paying for mobile apps is irrational and that I should be more willing to drop cash on apps that would truly benefit my life. After all, what’s $3 in the grand scheme of things, especially if that $3 unlocks an amazing app for the rest of my life? Put that way, it’s strange if I don’t buy it.

Not to mention the practical benefits of buying paid apps instead of relying on free apps: paid apps are usually more polished and more frequently updated, paid apps don’t have ads, paid apps don’t collect and sell your personal data, and paid apps support the livelihoods of honest-working app developers.

I’ll still use free apps, especially when said free app is as good as any paid alternative. But going forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort to buy more apps when I feel that free options aren’t enough. How about you?

Joel Lee
Joel is Editor in Chief at WhatNerd. He contributes the occasional article and manages the overall vision of the site. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science and is based in Pennsylvania.
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