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Should There Be an App for That? Why Mobile Sites Could Be More Important.

When mobile shoppers actually buy stuff, it's mostly through mobile websites, not apps.


We live in a world of apps: More than a million can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store; another 1.3 million or so from Google Play. We spend the vast majority of our Internet time using apps on our mobile devices (86 percent of it, says Flurry).

Much has been made of the dominance of apps in the world of mobile. But guess what? When mobile shoppers actually buy stuff, it’s not through apps, but on mobile websites, according to an eMarketer report, based on work by Baynote and the E-Tailing Group.

The finding is a little startling, given the buzz around apps. And it’s another indication of just how challenging it is for digital retailers to figure out where they should be spending their time, energy and money. In a world where consumers live online and on-the-go, there’s desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone to be concerned with. There are websites, apps and responsive sites that serve all channels.

Maybe more than anything, eMarketer’s latest conclusion is one more sign that mobile commerce is emerging and evolving, changing as fast as it’s growing — and it’s growing at an extraordinary pace. The eMarketer report said that mobile sales will near $60 billion this year, accounting for 19 percent of e-commerce sales. Within two years, the research company said, that percentage will be 25 percent.

If you think for a minute about the way consumers use their mobile devices, the divide between time on apps and spending on mobile sites is not quite as surprising as it first seems. A tremendous amount of time spent on mobile apps is time spent on social networks like Facebook.

But shopping is a whole different arena.

“Often, shopping is occurring off of a search,” said Carl Boutet, business development manager at Mega Group, a consortium of independent Canadian retailers. “So if people are searching, they are maybe, by default, being brought into their browsers.”

Netta Kivilis, head of marketing for New York marketing analytics company Custora, said the company’s research shows that organic and paid search drove nearly 30 percent of mobile orders among the firm’s customers. And email offers accounted for another 27 percent of mobile revenue.

“It might be the case that emails do not currently do a good job of launching the mobile app on the phone when a recipient clicks through on the email,” Kivilis said.

And even when consumers intend to purchase through an app, the transaction itself might take place on the retailer’s mobile site, according to eMarketer.

“Even if a retailer has an app, the odds are good the app will launch a mobile browser when the shopper moves to order,” the eMarketer report said, explaining that the transaction functions are already designed into the company’s website infrastructure.

All of which helps explain the Baynote and E-Tailing Group survey, cited by eMarketer, which found that 55 percent of shoppers in 2013 made a holiday season purchase on a mobile website, compared to 34 percent who purchased on an app. That mobile website purchase figure, by the way, was up from 43 percent in 2012.

One note: The survey did not break out which apps consumers used, which raises a question: How many of those app shoppers were buying on Amazon’s app? Unofficial answer: A lot.

Boutet points out that while the app-versus-mobile-site discussion is interesting in itself, it is also a sign of the universal recognition among retailers that they have to focus on mobile, and that they have to do it well.

“I hope no one is having that question (about mobile) that we had 10 years ago: ‘Should we go on the Internet?'” he said of retailers. “I hope we’re beyond that.”

With mobile sales rising at double-digit percentage rates at least through 2018, according to eMarketer, and with consumers steadily moving to mobile as a key way to shop, it’s clearer than ever that retailers need to invest in making their mobile shopping experience robust, convenient, relevant and maybe even fun — no matter whether the focus is mobile apps, a responsive site or a combination.

In fact, Boutet said, there might not be one right answer when it comes to focusing on an app or focusing on a mobile site that is optimized for tablets and smartphones. Big retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Target and others have the luxury of trying everything.

Mid-sized retailers need to consider the cost of developing apps for different mobile operating systems and keeping them up to date. Is that necessary, given that responsive design can lead to a website that works well on all devices?

Kivilis offered the cautionary tale of a Custora client that had created a fancy app with many of the bells and whistles.

“Then they discovered that they actually had to drive traffic and generate these downloads to make it worthwhile,” she said. “The app itself became something they had to feed and generate marketing for. It was not necessarily ROI-positive.”

And, of course, apps require a certain amount of loyalty from customers: If they download your app, will they ever open it? Will shoppers love your brand enough to feel comfortable in the confines of your app when searching for something carried by many retailers?

“People are saying that the ecosystems are such that the browser experience is better and better, responsive design is more accessible, and that’s what people want, anyway,” Boutet said of retailers’ thinking on the subject. “I think when it comes to shopping, there is some truth to that.”

Indeed, the eMarketer report points out that most of the Top 500 Internet retailers in North America have opted for websites optimized for mobile.

And pointing to the fact that the lines between shopping channels — in-store, online — and different devices are blurring in the minds of consumers, Boutet said he wouldn’t be surprised if the mobile shopping experience eventually evolves to a place beyond distinct apps versus mobile sites.

“I think, at some point, you’re not going to necessarily know if you’re in an app or not — or are you in a browser?” Boutet said. “There is something that is going to come along.”

Just one more thing to keep the e-commerce industry on its toes.

Mike Cassidy is the storyteller for BloomReach, a big-data marketing application company, and developer of the personalized discovery platform. As a former business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, where he shared the Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting with his colleagues, he chronicled the rise and fall — and rise and fall — of Silicon Valley. Follow his continued industry reporting on the BloomReach Blog; follow him @mikecassidy.

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