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. 

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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.