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One trend I've noticed lately is that the few UK retailers that have launched mobile commerce services have opted to do this via mobile apps rather than a mobile website. Both Next and Net-A-Porter have the app, but not the mobile site. 

Is there an argument for producing an app rather than a mobile site? Or should retailers be looking to reach as many customers as possible with a mobile site? Or should they have both? 

I've listed some of the arguments for and against... 

Why have a mobile commerce app?

Since smartphones, and the iPhone in particular, currently dominate the mobile internet, there is an argument that an app is more likely to appeal to them. 

Smartphone users are more affluent. Therefore, apps will appeal to an audience with more disposable income.

Better functionality. Smartphone features like GPS and the compass on the 3GS means that retailers can offer a richer experience, with location based services, augmented reality, or the photo function on the Amazon iPhone app. 

Greater visibility. The popularity of App Store as a model for distributing apps means that retailers can get some good exposure for their apps. For example, the recently released Next iPhone app currently sits at number two in the Top 25 free apps list, which should guarantee plenty of downloads. 

Your customers have smartphones. If you have a significant proportion of mobile visitors using Android phones and iPhones, then an app may be the best way to appeal to them. 

Why have an m-commerce website? 

Greater reach. An app restricts the number of customers you can appeal to. 

Appeal to mobile searchers. Apps need to be downloaded in advance. If customers don't have your app, they can't buy from you, but if you have a mobile-optimised site, they can search and find it on their browsers. 

No third party approval required. If you want an app, you'll need to wait for approval before release and before you make adjustments. Having a mobile site means you are unrestrained in your site design and can push out updates and changes whenever you want. 

No need to design multiple apps. Eventually other phones will eat into iPhone market share more and more, meaning that you may have to develop apps for several handsets. You can avoid this with a mobile site. 

The browser-based mobile market is the future. According to recent Taptu research, the browser-based mobile web market will grow much faster than the app market, so a mobile site will be necessary long term. 

----

For a retailer looking for the largest possible audience for its products and services, the best starting point may be a website optimised for all mobiles, as this allows you to reach the widest possible audience. You allow people to stumble upon your site via a mobile search engine. 

If a healthy percentage of visitors to your mobile site are using iPhones, Android Handsets or others, then there is a case for developing a dedicated mobile app to improve the experience for these customers. 

Or, to cover all bases, why not have a mobile site AND app? This is what eBay, Amazon, Best Buy and others all do, and it seems to be working for them. 

Graham Charlton

Published 26 February, 2010 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

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George Rosier, Product Manager at Spark New Zealand

Personally, I'd go with a Site over an App. My reasoning is thus:

  • Smartphones have adequate web access to make browsing a site fairly painless as it is, but also...
  • ...if the ecommerce site is smart, they'd use a service like Wapple to ensure their site works in both regular browsers & mobile versions
  • It's all about reach, and being device agnostic means greater reach
  • I'd argue whether enough ecommerce Apps make use of the functionality benefits you describe above to become a genuine benefit point. Happy to be swayed on that one, though!
That's just me, though. :)

over 6 years ago

simon andrews

simon andrews, founder at Econsultancy Small Business Guest AccessSmall Business Multi-user

I think the whole apps vs browser argument misses the point - smart businesses will have both and deal with the key strategic issue - what content is cached and what is in the cloud. ( and of course html5 allows the browser to do both)

The richness of apps makes them a requirement but the reach of the browser makes that key too. Apps have a strong role to play as visiibity for the brand - the home screen is the most valuable real estate these days - but when a user clicks to on the icon they don't care whether it opens an app or a browser page - they just want the experience to be the right experience.

Smart mobile strategies have apps across the major OS - with the experience elegantly degrading according to the capabilities of the handset - with browser based content woven into the experience.

over 6 years ago

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Alan

I would say that using Apps is a better way to sell, this way people aren't having to pinch/zoom ect to see stuff on the normal site.

A mobile site is good in theory, but basically it is an App build in HTML.

With Apps becoming very mainstream on all phones now, i think Apps should be the way to go forward.

over 6 years ago

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Irfan

Hi

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Irfan

over 6 years ago

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Irfan

syedirfan@cattechnologies.com

over 6 years ago

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promotional products

Personally, I prefer apps... I'm always looking for new and cool apps, anything to waste my day... Just kidding!

over 6 years ago

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veiko herne

In 2006 the Barcelona WMC was full of declarations of mobile Internet. However somehow iStore success changed everything so in 2010 the Barcelona WMC was about success of mobile app stores. Whome to blaim? Not Apple I think. Blame WebKit (the developers of mobile browsers) who cannot fix simple bugs within five years!!! Blame the marketplace where you can get at least some money from mobile app, while Internet is still free.

Blame Google and Vodaphone who developed their transcoders, united mobile sites with everything else in Internet and transforming your pages leaving your ads out of it to sell their ads.

Mobile website is still a fraction of cost to develop compared to mobile app and will work on any device.

Opera (who is still at least five years ahead of WebKit) had a good strategy. Let's make mobile websites as Widgets so we could sell them as apps.

over 6 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

I think it would be interesting to learn more about real user behaviour and preference when using a mobile device rather than than worrying about what is convenient or attractive to our industry.

We know that users interact differently with a mobile device than a desktop and we also (should) know that typical users have expectations about the "application experience". Will they be as tolerant of "browser based experiences" as they are on the desktop? Perhaps they will show a preference for a uniform experience and that "preference" shows itself through the brand of phone they decide to buy?

The counter question might be what about when they upgrade smartphone's and move to a different manufacturer? Will the have to re-purchase their apps? Also what about application discoverability?

My opinion, from the work that we have done, is that the native app distributed via an app store model is likely to be more successful. 

What I find interesting is the possibility extending to the app store model back to the desktop. Effectively then the browser can just be a glorified document reader - which is what it was intended to be in the first place :)

over 6 years ago

Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

Just at the moment the iPhone dominates mobile so much that an App is a good option. A key App advantage has been the listing in the App store. However, as the App store is so large differentiation is becoming difficult.

In time the tables will turn as more mobile devices are used and Android becomes a major challenger.

Any App and/or Mobile website should be designed to be tracked and measurable, so that whether there is an ROI can be calculated. Then the answer becomes clear, if they both make profit, why not do both?

I ran an analysis of several million email open and clicks for one day last week to see what the mobile platform usage is like.

Just at the moment across all platforms (including PCs etc) the email usage was 5% iPhone, 0.25% Blackberry, 0.08% Android.

There were a few dozen opens/clicks by gaming consoles too. An indication of the future, email and websites will be viewed on more and more diverse devices.

over 6 years ago

Chris Goward

Chris Goward, CEO at WiderFunnel Marketing

It's a question of segmentation, foks.

The app is likely to target your top 2-10% of devoted fans. Consider the maximum number of apps the average user will allow on their mobile. What does it take to get into that selection? Frequent usage and great perceived value proposition. Only your best customers will install it.

The other 90-98% will start with your mobile website. If it sucks, you won't get the chance to convert them into an app downloader. You'll miss out on the largest group by focusing just on the top tier.

over 6 years ago

Vincent Amari

Vincent Amari, Online Consultancy at Business Foresights Ltd

Isn't this a no brainer?

Most businesses would be advised to have both an app and a mobile version.

Just to muddy the waters a little more, why not build a web application on your own site that functions just like an app instead of a native phone application?

@ Alan, no need to "pinch/zoom to see stuff" using this method.

I foresee the possibility that the euphoria around app stores could soon die down as more developers ambrace this approach.

Here are a couple of example 'enablers' that are leading the way:

http://www.jqtouch.com/

http://webapp-net.com/

Try the demos and you'll see how great these tools are.

The only advantages the dedicated apps have right now are the GPS and augmented reality features. But that too will soon be possible with the above tools.

over 6 years ago

Christian Louca

Christian Louca, Founder - New Mobile Start-Up at Stealth Mode

M-commerce is a natural progression for retailers to extend their existing e-commerce operations.  I also have the viewpoint that m-commerce will leapfrog e-commerce in less established markets. After all mobile internet has done this in countries like India, China, Korea (to name a few) so why not m-commerce? Retailers have been traditionally slow in taking up mobile as a marketing/sales channel.  It was no different in the early fixed internet days. However, with players like Google and Apple moving into the market, I do believe Retailers are being forced to wake up and realise the true potential of this device.  Whilst they are behind other sectors in mobile adoption, it is not too late for them to get involved.

Unfortunately, we have already seen retailers start to embrace mobile with the wrong strategy and are making the mistakes that others are savvy too. We are seeing retailers jump on the app bandwagon without considering the mobile internet first, this is a classic mistake to make.  

Mobile Internet is at the heart of Mobile Marketing campaigns. The key to this is to remember mobile works best when integrated into traditional media whatever the format.  Mobile applications are just one element to utilise as a marketing channel. At present only iphone applications are offering the rich levels brands would expect and the experience consumers would hope for. The others are some way behind.  There is limited reach, as in the UK iphone has only **17% handset penetration (much less Globally) with Blackberry slightly higher on **20% and Nokia still dominating with a huge **39%  (**Smart phone penetration).

In order to maximise the success of any campaign you need to reach the targeted masses; which means you need to consider all platforms and formats whether it is an application, mobile internet site or simple SMS communications or mobile vouchers (to name but a few). This always comes back to the key metrics in determining the success of any campaign:

Reach, Targeting, Engagement, Viral-ability and Transactional…..

Does it have reach?  Is it targeted? Is it engaging?  Is it viral? Can you make a sale?

The higher it scores in these areas then the closer you are to running a successful mobile marketing campaign that has delivered recognised measured tangible results.

The iPhone apps and other apps can be an added benefit to a customer base and must be considered.  Starting with the mobile internet will enable reach of a much wider audience and they can run trageted ad campaigns on mobile internet sites which will produce much better ROI than simply trying to drive traffic to download their iPhone app (which is not measurable and excluding to the masses if  integrated into traditional media). Only recently I published a press release on my blog from the IAB who conducted research with Nationwide showing  that using mobile and online advertising in combination can significantly increase brand awareness and purchase consideration:

http://wp.me/pxxzu-6R

I have been working in mobile with some of the worlds leading brands since early 2003 across many sectors.  Mobile is a powerful communications channel whether it is engendering loyalty, acquiring customers or retaining customers.  It delivers in all these areas across all mobile formats.

over 6 years ago

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rob

We have solved some of this problem by building a "cloud sdk" called the motherapp engine. You can create native phone apps across platform using one source code. You get the benefits of m-web and the performance of native app.

For more infomation contact us via our site at www.motherapp.com

over 6 years ago

Tina Whitfield

Tina Whitfield, CEO at EquisGlobal

It depends is my answer.  There are downloadable true apps, widgets pretending to be apps that open browser-enabled sites, and browser-enabled sites.

What is the function of the retail store, what is the wireless access in the area, particularly during the holiday and at peak hours, how will the CMS be managed, etc...

There is no one right way.  It all depends.

over 6 years ago

Lily Somerville

Lily Somerville, Internal New Business Sales Manager at Ad.IQ Global

A large proportion of my job is answering this one question! Great thing for people to be thinking about though, as mobile usage is growing heavily month-on-month and more and more people are using their phones "smartly", even if they don't have a smart-phone!

I'd have to say that the answer depends on the brand itself and what your objectives are, but having at least a small mobile site is a no-brainer. If someone goes to your page while they're on the bus or train and can't access the content they're looking for, they come away from it with a poor experience and can often be put off from going back in the future.

Apps and mobile sites are essentially two different channels, and the content you provide for each should reflect that. Apps are less about ROI and more about engagement; providing entertainment as well as information. Mobile sites should be more about providing someone with a cut-down version of your normal website that gives them the information they want to see without a lot of scrolling left and right and long loading times.

The content for mobile sites can be more interactive than you might realise, and you can do some pretty neat things with mobile sites these days. We built around 25ish last year, and as it becomes more advanced and  mainstream as a channel, you'd be surprised what you can do, and how you can direct consumers to take things further.

over 6 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

Does anyone have any data that they can share that shows usage of mobile browsers? Ideally by browser type and country? 

Would be interesting to also understand the type of sites that a mobile user, browsing via a handset feels they need to go to... 

Whilst it is really easy to say "mobile is growing" (which is of course true), what needs to be understood is what that growth looks like and the kind of user behaviour that is fuelling it. I would suggest that it would be incorrect to assume that mobile behaviour is in anyway similar to desktop browsing behaviour. 

over 6 years ago

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Nico

The iPhone does BOTH apps and mob sites (very well). So building Mob Sites is the way to go, especially when m-commerce is integrated with other channels and frequently updated / modified - and you don't want to wait for Apple to "ok" your app changes, but prefer to get some business done.

Once you leave utility-type, repeat-use scenarios and iTunes / store compatible billing (i.e. goods & services = a few £), a mobile site is the way to go.

iPhone users may well still be your best customers, and bookmark your mobsite (even with a cute little icon so it looks like an app), and have a great user experience when browsing your mobile store (assuming you've used the right solution/build).

For those with deep pockets, and a 2010 focus, yes build both app and mob site, but mob site first as it will be easier to use that as a prototype for content management, user flow etc than the other around.

over 6 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Sites for ubiquity, apps for otimised user experience (on one device for each app).

A mobile site with siphisticated device targeting may be the best of both worlds.  Device databases like WURFL and dotMobi's Device Atlas can help enable that.

over 6 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

My vote goes for mobile website first.

Done properly you are in all markets immediately. Plus it's a real nuisance for someone running into the full website on a mobile phone.

Three problems solved in a single hit.

over 6 years ago

Vincent Amari

Vincent Amari, Online Consultancy at Business Foresights Ltd

If you are running any Wordpress blogs, I found a a neat solution to this that detects mobile browsers and serves an 'App lookalike' version:

WPtouch iPhone Theme A plugin which formats your site with a mobile theme for the Apple iPhone / iPod touch, Google Android, Palm Pre and other touch-based smartphones http://www.bravenewcode.com/products/wptouch/

Installed it on a blog for a friend if you want to try it here: http://www.englishdemocrat.com With developments like this growing fast, are we seeing the decline of the App store already?!

over 6 years ago

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Luke Glen

One must remember that smart phones only make up approx 35% of current phones used by shoppers. 

- 3G needs to be faster before people are comfortable to surf mobile websites. Currently it's still too slow.

- iphones account for less than 1% of the world wide mobile phone market share. In the UK it's < 5%. In the US it's 5-10%. So by investing all your effort into iPhone apps will at most reach a small % of your customer base. 

- Blackberry still has higher market share than iPhone and Android combined.

Nevertheless, what should you do? Build an app for all smart phone types, and a mobile website, and a normal website? Yes, Yes and Yes...oh and don't forget that SMS is still the fastest growth in phone communications. So retailers should embrace that too.

But many folks now days get their buying referrals from friends....so best to adopt a social media strategy....and with so many smart phone users using social media clients on their mobiles, you should leverage the Geotagging options too, and get in on the Location Based Services/Offerings for your customers, within and alongside social media.

twitter: @lukeglen / www.spotid.me

over 6 years ago

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Remote developer

I suppose that Android take over iPhone in a 2 years.

Or there will be an iPhone with Android 3 installed.

We are migrating towards the Androind development in our business strategy.

almost 6 years ago

Igor Faletski

Igor Faletski, CEO at Mobify

Add one more vote for the mobile web. Lead generation power of open web links (search/social/local/email/etc) is just impossible to ignore for serious online retailers.

Apps can be great complements, focused on unique, rich, game-like functionality that can help establish brand presence (with hand off to a mobile web checkout).

over 5 years ago

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wordpress.com

Fabulous, what a website it is! This weblog provides valuable information to us,
keep it up.

over 3 years ago

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