NEW YORK, United States — The rise of mobile is changing the game for retailers. According to Comscore, nearly two-thirds of all time spent shopping online now happens on phones and tablets. And yet, the proportion of actual transactions completed on mobile is much less. In the first quarter of 2016, mobile accounted for only 19 percent of digital sales in the United States.
In apparel and accessories, the proportion was marginally higher (20 percent). But it’s safe to say that large numbers of fashion consumers use their mobile devices to research products and compare prices, but turn to their desktops (or visit stores) to actually make their purchases. “Desktop has a high-intentioned purchaser, whereas in mobile, people are shopping and browsing casually,” says Brandon Chu, senior product manager at Shopify, which sells back-end software used by more than 275,000 retailers, 40 percent of which sell clothing.
So, how can retailers bridge the mobile commerce gap?
The Ontario, Canada-based Shopify — whose clients mostly operate in the Anglosphere — is gaining ground in the channel, with nearly 70 percent of traffic and just over 50 percent of sales made via the platform coming from mobile. This puts Shopify far ahead of the US average for mobile transactions, but Chu believes the gap between mobile browsers and buyers will eventually narrow in the US, as it has in other regions. In Japan, for instance, in the fourth quarter of 2016, half of e-commerce purchases were made on mobile, according to online advertising firm Criteo. Other countries with a high proportion of mobile transactions include the United Kingdom, South Korea and Germany.
Why the lag in the US? Americans tend to be more concerned with security breaches, and have been using smartphones for less time than those in many other regions, especially Asia. What's more, most American retailers haven’t created optimal mobile shopping experiences that provide for near-seamless transactions. A major pain point is payment. No one wants to have to type in a credit card number on a mobile phone.
Are Apps the Answer?
Dedicated apps are one way to get more people shopping on their phones, argues Nitin Mangtani, chief executive of PredictSpring, a company that makes mobile apps for retailers like Cole Haan. “Apps really move the needle for brands,” says Mangtani, a former Google executive who led the Google Shopping merchant and search infrastructure team. “If you don’t have an app, millennials don’t even think you exist.”
For PredictSpring’s clients, in-app conversion rates are roughly two to three times higher than their average mobile web conversion rates, according to the company. “There is little innovation happening on the browser,” Mangtani says. Apps certainly load more quickly than mobile browsers, and often offer a more satisfying user experience, including the option to scan credit card details, simply by taking a photo. What's more, apps allow brands to send push notifications and many offer Apple Pay, which allows iPhone users to pay with Touch ID.
Some cross-category retailers have had great success with apps, most notably Amazon, the top-ranked retailer in the Apple App Store’s “shopping” category. But for fashion brands, are apps worth the investment? There are certainly downsides. For one, apps need to be built and updated in parallel to m-commerce sites, meaning a second technology development stream. Then there's the reality that the average American spends 80 percent of their “app time” on their favourite three apps — and, of course, these are much more likely to be social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat than retailers. That means a lot of retail apps are downloaded and never used again (while many more are never even downloaded in the first place).
Mangtani has a simple rebuttal, however. “Then why should an apparel brand even build a website?” he says. “If you look at the world of digital, consumers tend to gravitate toward a handful of digital properties. Back in the day, that was AOL and Yahoo. Today it’s Snapchat and Instagram. If you didn’t have a digital presence, you would miss out. While it’s true that a monobrand won’t have a billion users, they may have five million or a million, or even 100,000 users.”
“[Apps are] not for everyone,” says Chu. But brands with a high percentage of loyal repeat customers may consider it a worthy investment. “There is a correlation between the strength of the brand and the success of the app,” he continues. “Very strong brands work with their customers, offering earlier access to products and a faster shopping experience. But the hard part in mobile is building out value in the app.”
Consider Spring — not to be confused with PredictSpring — a virtual, app-only shopping mall that launched in August 2014 with the backing of major investors, including Thrive Capital and Groupe Arnault. In November 2015, Spring added an e-commerce website. Just six months later, 30 percent of Spring’s sales come from web. “Some customers want that web-first experience,” explains Marshall Porter, president of Spring. “As we have added brands — we now have well over 1,000 brands on Spring — and looked to scale, we've also believed that building a web presence was an important way to build our brand and customer base, given some of the economics of scaling purely on [an app]. That bet has proven prescient,” he adds. “We continue to invest in both web and app, and know that customers who are more inclined to a mobile-only experience find our app amazingly compelling, and more web-centric customers start with us on the web, and move to the app as they start to see the value of Spring.”
Making the most of the URL
Many retailers are investing in a web-based mobile experience that rivals the user-friendliness of an app. “At the most basic level, you have to think, does the site work?” says Chris Morton, chief executive of Lyst, a fashion e-commerce site that pulls in 10,000 products a day from different brands and retailers, and allows customers to checkout via a universal shopping cart. (Like Spring, Lyst maintains both a website and an app.) “Then, you begin to consider the mental state of the consumer.”
Many have turned to “responsive design,” a scalable design practice which delivers an experience optimized to the screen size of a user's device. Retailers are also working to reduce the number of steps a shopper must take to move from browsing and buying. “It’s about shortening the journey between finding something you like and being able to buy it,” Morton said. “Universal checkout was largely driven by mobile. Being able to check out with a single click helps us to find the conversion.” In the past year, Lyst’s sessions on mobile and tablets have more than doubled.
Adding to the tool box
Right now, there is also a lot of excitement around embedding m-commerce experiences into messaging apps. Shopify, for instance, recently integrated with Facebook Messenger so that its clients can start the conversion process there. “It means they’re constantly connected with their customers, and can give them real-time responses,” says Chu.
And to help combat that pesky problem of slow or cumbersome payment processes, many brands and retailers have incorporated systems like Paypal and Amazon Payments — which recently teamed up with luxury e-tailer Moda Operandi — with hopes of making mobile transactions smoother. The introduction of Apple Pay to Safari, scheduled to be implemented in the coming months, according to reports, is a potential game changer.
Shifting advertising dollars can also mobile transactions. A recent report by Japanese Internet company Rakuten (whose B2B2C e-commerce platform Rakuten Ichiba is the largest e-commerce site in Japan and among the world’s largest by sales) recorded a 106 percent increase in revenue attributed to mobile display advertising campaigns in 2015. The company says brands in the apparel and accessories category benefited most from mobile campaigns, with an average 2,518 percent increase in year-over-year mobile sales.
Ultimately, different retailers will adopt different strategies suited to their overall strategies and the behaviour of their customers, but one thing is clear: as mobile usage grows and grows, businesses need to act fast to avoid falling behind.
Editor's Note: This article was revised on May 24th, 2016. An earlier version of this article misstated that Shopify is used by over 27,000 users. This is incorrect. It powers over 275,000 users.