Now that smartphone ownership has reached ‘perfect peak’ according to Deloitte, with 81 percent penetration in the UK alone, it is widely accepted that mobile has become an integral part of the shopping experience.

Market research experts GfK suggest that 45 percent of all shopping includes some form of mobile activity, including research, comparing prices and making purchases, and among those aged 18-24, it reaches 57 percent.

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However, while retailers generally seem committed to having some kind of mobile presence, there’s still a question over where they should focus their investment.

Today’s mobile landscape

The debate around using mobile for commercial purposes used to centre on one key dilemma – mobile apps or mobile web? Over the last few years, technology and user behaviour have moved so far and so fast that the conversation has become much more complex:

  • Hybrid apps, which include elements of both native (iOS, Android) and web applications, now offer a user experience which is almost indistinguishable from pure native apps, at a more manageable price
  • Evidence suggests that, while well-crafted apps are still accessed regularly by around half of all users in the UK, they have ‘app fatigue’ and are downloading fewer native apps (typically limited to apps they use many times a day, such as Snapchat & Facebook). Many brands are now reaching the end of life of their previous native apps, and the decision to replace them is no longer an automatic ‘yes’
  • Mobile traffic overtook desktop traffic for the first time last year (51.3percent v 48.7percent), especially among more profitable customer segments. It’s clear that responsive web is now the default option for retailers thinking of re-platforming – this means they will all eventually have a mobile website anyway
  • Alternative platforms including chat services have shown that it’s no longer just a two-horse race, highlighting the importance of having both separation and consistency across mobile channels
  • The increase in search as a primary starting point for mobile journeys (48percent v 26percent for apps according to Google) prioritises mobile web SEO over app store SEO; apps have not kept up in terms of discovery and in their ability to influence search rankings and behaviours

Making the choice

Given the current state of play, retailers in the position of having to choose one platform from the two should opt for a responsive mobile website - it is ‘good enough’ for most use cases and ensures all customers can be served at a basic level. This is especially true for retailers with customers who typically only shop with them a few times a year. And, while there are any number of facts and figures suggesting that apps should come first, there are also health warnings to go with them:

  • Despite differences in conversion, focusing on apps gives you a smaller portion of the market – research from Morgan Stanley states that for retail, mobile web is driving twice the traffic of apps
  • Figures comparing time spent using apps against mobile web can be misleading, as app use is dominated by a few key players outside of retail
  • Apps may suffer from a self-selection problem – the most loyal customers are also the most likely to download and keep an app and convert more

Good apps are still in good health and high demand

However, it’s far from being over for apps - there is still a technology gap between them and mobile web, especially when it comes the convenience an app offers (remembering who you are and what you we last doing) as well having access to new technologies (IoT, micro-location, mobile payment, etc) much faster than websites. The Internet Retailer Mobile 500 list suggests that 42percent of all mobile sales generated by the world’s leading 500 merchants in mcommerce last year came from mobile applications.

Retailers who choose to build first-class apps will reap the benefits – the larger retailers’ customers will expect them to have both an app and a mobile site. It’s vital to focus on the app platform’s strengths to deliver really captivating experiences, including:

  • Cultivating in-store/online crossover to provide an app-based experience that makes customers want to physically visit a store, through location-based deals and offers or specific app-activated in-store activities
  • Unique experiences based on geolocation and device-to-device communication with sales colleague apps
  • Perpetual login and frictionless access to customer details and mobile payments for a seamless, more personalised experience
  • Targeted messaging and notifications, including rich personalisation
  • Deep loyalty and higher lifetime customer value for frequent customers
  • Better integration with the ecosystem of apps on the user’s device, especially the closed social networks of messaging apps

Successful retailers recognise that it’s really not a question of mobile apps v mobile web. A solid, future-proof mobile strategy depends on gaining a deeper understanding of customer behaviours and desires on both platforms through analytics and a test-and-learn mentality, coupled with the ability to deliver the information and functionality to match with a flexible, integrated platform that can effectively target these segments at increasingly granular levels.

Above all, it’s vital to recognise that, important though it is, mobile commerce delivered through apps or web is just one piece in a bigger omnichannel picture that must play to each touchpoint’s strengths while delivering a seamless, consistent experience that transcends specific channels.