While plenty of retailers have released mobile commerce apps, and some of them are excellent, I think the future lies with creating mobile websites, and this should be the first step into mobile commerce. 

This doesn’t mean that apps don’t have their place, but retailers should look to mobile commerce sites before they create an app. This is the approach taken by both M&S and John Lewis, and it makes sense for other retailers. 

Here are ten reasons to opt for the mobile web as a first step… 

Greater reach

An app restricts your mobile customer base to users of compatible handsets. By offering a mobile website, you can appeal to the broadest possible audience without having to design multiple apps. 

Mobile commerce sites can work

Since launching in May, the M&S mobile commerce site has attracted 1.2m visitors, more than 10m page views, and has attracted 13,000 orders. Also, one customer ordered two sofas for £3,280, showing that some people are prepared to spend big on mobile. 

Growth of Android

One reason why many retailer have plumped for iPhone apps over the past year has been their mobile visitor stats, which have often shown the vast majority coming from iPhones. While this is possibly still the case for many, and also a good argument for having an app as well, Android phones are now beginning to catch up

I’ve talked to retailers who have seen significant increases in visits from Android devices, and this trend is set to continue. A mobile website is the best way to appeal to both Android and iPhone users. 

Findability

An app requires users to actively search for it and download it to their phones, but users can come across your mobile optimised site through mobile search. This means you can appeal to users searching for particular products on their mobiles, and catch more impulse buyers. 

Promoting your app

There are now nearly 50 different app stores, and over 400,000 apps in the top three stores, meaning retailers will have to work hard not to get lost in the sheer quantity of apps out there. If you are Tesco or Argos, your apps is likely to feature in the App Store charts, but this is harder to achieve for smaller retailers. 

Mobile sites can recreate some of the best features of apps

One argument for apps over the mobile web has been the extra functionality that apps can provide, features like barcode scanning, detecting users’ locations for store locators, and augmented reality. 

However, some of these things can be achieved on the mobile web now. For example, a mobile browser can detect your location (if you allow it) using HTML5 and javascript, the Google mobile site can do this.

On Android, a web site can launch Barcode Reader using a system of ‘Intents‘ while on the iPhone, there are apps, such as pic2shop to read a barcode and integrate with mobile websites. 

Links

One thing that users miss when using apps is the hyperlink. On the mobile web you can always email a link and any browser can open it, but you can’t link to and from an app. 

Having a mobile site allows you to benefit from links, and makes it easier for mobile users to share URLs of product pages. 

No approval process required

If you opt for the app route, you’ll need to wait for approval before release and before you can make subsequent adjustments. Having a mobile site means you are unrestrained in your site design and can push out updates and changes whenever you want. 

HTML5

The recently released Rightmove mobile website uses HTML5, and manages to recreate the features of its iPhone app, and it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two. 

I asked Benoit Maison from VisionSmarts about the impact of HTML on mobile websites: 

Mobile sites are getting much closer to apps. For example, they can work offline with local storage  Since mobile browsers are at the leading edge of HTML5 (both the iPhone and Android use Apple’s WebKit), they can use all the cool HTML5+CSS3+JavaScript features.  See for example the screencast and demos on the jQTouch website if you are not convinced! 

To be fair, native apps retain an advantage for real-time, 3D games and cutting-edge user interface. But for many kinds of apps, it’s not clear that it’s worth the large extra cost. 

The mobile web is a better solution for small businesses

While larger retailers have the option of pushing out apps for a range of devices, for smaller businesses, creating one mobile website to cover all bases makes more sense financially.

For example, gift retailer TruffleShuffle hired an intern to design a mobile site based on the mobile site review tips from this blog, all for a few hundred pounds.