Why Retailers Need to Integrate into Mobile

By Eric Leuenberger

Why Retailers Need to Integrate into MobileComScore reported in 2012 that the number of mobile users accessing the Internet would surpass traditional desktop users by the end of 2014. In fact, ComScore reports this occurred for the first time in the first month of this year. In January 2014, users accessing the Internet via a mobile device exceeded those who accessed through a desktop computer.

Driven by the desire to be more mobile, higher speed wireless networks, and backed by greater confidence, consumer purchases via mobile devices is also soaring. Juniper Research estimated 393 million mobile shoppers in 2012, and says that number will increase to 580 million consumers by the end of 2014. The study suggests retailers should consider mobile shopping as a significant revenue channel for future sales, and not just a small extension of their current online efforts. On March 5, 2014, Goldman Sachs released an updated forecast for m-commerce sales, stating that estimated sales of $133 billion occurred in 2013, and will be near $626 billion in 2018. In the US alone, m-commerce will more than triple by 2018, representing $131 billion, or 32% of American e-commerce sales. That’s a lot of opportunity!

Hard facts and estimates aside, with the growth of smartphones and tablets it becomes increasingly critical that online retailers need to quickly meet this channel of consumer needs with mobile website compatible options or apps. Those that adapt will flourish and reap rewards, and those that take longer to transition will be left behind and miss out on significant sales. This illustrates that everyone will eventually have to offer mobile compatible options, or they can forget about being competitive.

Responsive Design vs. Mobile Site

M-commerce is not new, and many retailers have already adapted their current sites to produce a ‘mobile ready version’ that is poised to take advantage of the opportunity. However, until recently the preferred method of tackling this growing trend was to develop a completely separate ‘standalone’ mobile application, hosted using a unique domain url such as mobile.somesite.com. So far this has been an acceptable approach, but with technology seeming to move faster than the speed of light, it is already being rivaled by a new mobile design technique.

The new term is ‘responsive design,’ and it has native differences, while (according to Google) even better SEO benefits over its predecessor. With being an emerging and possibly quite costly design technique, the user preference between a mobile app vs. a responsive design has yet to be determined. However, it’s a safe bet to think that with time, the move to responsive sites will be the status quo.

What is the difference between a responsive website and a mobile application?

The traditional mobile application is a copy of the current website, designed and programmed in a way that optimizes the pages to be delivered on a smaller scale to end users of mobile devices. Quite often, this technology needs to ‘read’ what type of devices are accessing it (iPad, smartphone, etc.), and then determine if the pages it has are in fact ‘optimized’ for that device before serving. This is typically done using a script that checks the browser and operating system before the pages are served, and if it detects a mobile device present, then it serves the mobile version of the site. A standalone mobile application might be a good idea if development costs are limited.

On the other hand, a responsive design reacts in real time to optimize everything on the site in relation to the screen orientation (vertical vs. horizontal) and size, regardless of the device accessing it. In addition, a responsive website does not need a separate operating space to reside in, because the responsive design is built into the website itself. Responsive designs are a very flexible solution that should survive changing devices and future technology advances, far longer than the current mobile application options being used, but responsive designs can be costly to implement. It often takes a good reworking of the entire framework and backend programming of the website to achieve it. As a result, the early adopters will likely be larger companies with budgets able to withstand the investment.

Which Design Technology Wins?

While it is tough to say which technology option is going to prevail in the end, it is a good bet that with time the responsive approach will take a strong hold. However, given the nature of the budgets needed to implement that option at the present, it’s also safe to say that traditional mobile only sites will not be fading away anytime soon. In the end, the option that wins is that which works for the individual online retailer involved, and this is going to be different from one brand to the next. Regardless, it will be interesting to see where responsive design ends up by the end of 2014.