RSR Research: Mobile Apps or Mobile Sites?

Sep 30, 2013

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

My view, and one confirmed by interactions with retailers, is that mobile apps are crucial to future retailing success.

A consumer can log in and stay logged in, which means that activity there is more likely to not be anonymous. The consumer doesn’t have to enter all her account details if she buys something. With opt-ins, retailers can send alerts and also use the phone’s location and possibly features, like its camera. I think this holds true for smartphone and tablet apps.

But sometimes I hear something that so flies in the face of what I see trending it causes me to stop and take stock. One of those moments occurred about a month ago when one individual on the vendor briefing call stated, "Retailers aren’t investing in apps. Mobile sites are the future — consumers don’t really use apps."

What? Really?

I’ve been trying to validate whether the miss is mine or the vendor’s ever since, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my view and his — truly diametrically opposed — both exist.

One major challenge with weighing such investments is that retailers’ apps, frankly, stink.

Retailers either don’t have them, or what they do have is barely on par with the mobile site — which is a pale reflection of the full e-commerce site. Mobile apps also need to provide utility beyond what you can get from a mobile site simply to overcome the chore of logging in. Only with one app, Facebook, have I repeatedly gone to the trouble of looking up my password to achieve this state, and I’m no power Facebook user.

Why have I gone to this trouble? Because logging into the Facebook app makes it much easier to share pictures with my friends, the pictures I mostly take with the camera on my phone.

The lesson for retailers? Provide enough utility so that it’s worth looking up your password. About the only retailer apps with which I’ve gone through this trouble are Starbucks, Amazon and Target. One, because I shop there often enough that it is worth it to remember how to log in, and, two, because of their so-easy-to-use payment feature.

Apps offer the opportunity for deeper engagement with customers passionate enough to keep your app on their phone. But that’s only true when the retailer has gone to the effort to create something worth getting passionate about. Replicating the e-commerce site — sans anything cool or interesting — is definitely not worth getting passionate about.

Do you see more of an opportunity around enhancing mobile sites vs. mobile apps? Why does it seem retailers are facing particular challenges coming up with compelling mobile apps?

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19 Comments on "RSR Research: Mobile Apps or Mobile Sites?"

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Ken Lonyai

Nikki has some great points in her argument – the two most compelling (which are related) state: “…apps, frankly, stink.” and “Apps offer the opportunity for deeper engagement with customers passionate enough to keep your app on their phone.” Therein lies the answer.

The larger retail landscape is still burdened by wait and see thinking. When there’s no choice but to do something or be the odd retailer out, the minimum effort is made, sans innovation.

Technologically, apps have far more room for creativity and innovation than do mobile sites. So as Nikki points out, since most of retail just doesn’t know how to utilize technology in an original, engaging way, they largely create uninspiring apps.

Warren Thayer

Oh, come on. Even this Luddite uses apps now. Just keep things simple, okay?

Ryan Mathews

I think this really comes down to the state of the art in app and site technologies which I believe are both rapidly moving targets.

Given the relative infancy of these areas of retailing, I’d say the final jury is still out. All we know today is that ease of use, integrity of systems, privacy guarantees, etc. are table stakes in this brave new world.

If any of their purchasing options lack these principles, they will fail. If a purchasing option embodies these principles, it at least has a fair shot of acceptance, provided its attached to a product and/or service people really want.

Adrian Weidmann
While it is true that mobile apps have the potential of providing shoppers with a deeper engagement, the challenge for retailers is to proactively maintain a dialog with those shoppers that are “passionate enough to keep your app on their phone.” All too often the app is developed as a finite ‘thing’ that once implemented is perceived as finished. You wouldn’t expect to maintain a viable conversation with a ‘robo-operator’. Don’t expect a different result with an app that isn’t dynamic. As Nikki accurately states, most retailer mobile apps ‘stink’. They’re developed so the marketing department can claim they have a mobile initiative. If you’re not connecting with your customers on a regular basis and bringing value with every interaction all you have is a press release. It’s very difficult to create an app that shoppers will return to, time after time. Mobile apps are similar to digital signage at retail that unless they’re implemented into a valued shopper ‘workflow’ they will rapidly lose their viability as a valued communication and/or interactive vehicle. Mobile apps are not a ‘thing’ with a beginning, middle and end. In order to maintain their value in the hands of your customers and shoppers, they… Read more »
Max Goldberg

Both retailer apps and sites need to be enhanced, then let consumers decide which they want to use. Successful retailer apps and sites need to feature formats for use on a small screen, easy navigation, simple checkout and most of all, a reason for existing in the first place.

Retailers need to offer more than a listing of products for sale. Loyalty programs, coupons and promotional offers should be loaded into sites and apps. Store layouts, recipes (for grocers), parts and tool lists (for home improvement stores) and the like, need to be loaded into apps.

All of this costs money and takes a dedicated team that can cut across corporate silos. Most retailers are not willing to invest in this effort. And that’s why most retail sites are not reaching their potential with consumers.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

The choice between apps and mobile sites is like the choice between using smartphones or tablets – it is not either/or. Some consumers prefer apps, some prefer mobile sites depending upon the functionality. Therefore retailers need both or they have to make the advantages of using one very strong.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
4 years 19 days ago

For most retailers it does not make sense to invest in building a custom app unless you are providing features beyond just your store. Why? Because most retailers besides grocery and drug do not have enough visits per year to warrant an app. A consumer shops your store 2-4 times per year. Do they really need an app?

What is interesting are apps created by retailers that provide a service beyond just their store. For example, I was in L.L.Bean over the weekend and they have an app that provides information on all the parks and hiking trails in the US. As a consumer that loves the outdoors, I am more likely to download and use this app than if it was just an app that let me shop for L.L.Bean gear. Great move L.L.Bean!

Retailers should first understand their core shopper and then figure out the best way to reach them. An app is not always the answer.

Ben Sprecher
Ben Sprecher
4 years 19 days ago

Nikki makes some great points about the added value a mobile app *can* bring, *if* you get people to use it. But that’s a BIG “if.”

A data point to consider: Google researched this very question (see slide 12 of Google’s research study, “How Mobile Is Transforming the Shopping Experience in Stores“), and found that in-store shoppers favored mobile sites over mobile apps by 65% to 35%.

Gene Detroyer

Nikki is right on this one.

The dichotomy is caused by what the retailer wants. If the retailer wants to provide convenience to the shopper and therefore draw a more intimate relationship, they opt for apps. If the retailer want to control the information and control the shopper they opt for the website adapted for mobile (which is no different than a website).

This is a marketing decision on who adapts to who. Those who focus on providing apps are saying we will adapt to our shoppers. Those focusing on websites are saying we want our shoppers to adapt to us.

Herb Sorensen

100 years ago, self-service retailers lost virtually all true SELLING skills. Mobile apps developers are trying to help retailers “sell” and apparently know no more about selling than my grandma’s tricycle does. Shared ignorance does NOT amount to intelligence.

Lee Kent

Here’s the deal for me. I will not and don’t want to have apps for every retailer I shop! If I’m shopping on my mobile device, I simply want the site to be mobile-ready.

That said, if one of my fave retailers is offering something beyond shopping on an app, then I just might consider having their app. But, this is not to say that every retailer should be figuring out something special to offer me so that I will put their app on my phone or tablet. I still will not and don’t want to have apps for every retailer I shop!

They need to be figuring out who picks them as a fave and what that customer would consider special. Just sayin’.

James Tenser

Yes it’s true that a great many mobile apps from retailers stink. But let’s face it, on smartphones at least, the experience of using many mobile sites is often worse.

I think we marketing pros tend to overestimate the extent to which most shoppers desire “deeper engagement” via individual apps or sites from retailers. This can lead to a phenomenon we might call “app as ego monument.”

Better to look at it from the shoppers’ perspective: Multiple stores mean multiple accounts. Every app works differently. There is as yet no practical way to coordinate them around one’s personal shopping priorities.

I suspect the mobile shopping future will revolve around some sort of secure personal life management solution. Rather than build custom apps of their own, retailers will build linkages or plug-ins that permit shoppers to configure those solutions to suit their objectives.

Ralph Jacobson

Apps only get used if there is a compelling reason to do so. Retailers and CPG brands can drive some loyalty if the reason exists. In my experience, an app requires a more intense level of loyalty than a site. That’s great, however, a shopper needs to be driven to use that app. Think about the functionality an app can provide that a site does not or cannot. True, an app can be web-based and not require a download, however, downloaded apps have different potential features.

Nikki made some great points in her article, as usual. The biggest challenge is that retailers tend to build their apps and websites from their perspectives and not their shoppers’, with few exceptions. There are some great and compelling brand apps out there today, and their loyalty grows as the apps continue to evolve.

Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
4 years 19 days ago

It’s easy to forget that our customers, especially the occasional shoppers/customers, are not as emotionally invested in the brand as we are. I am virtually never interested in an app when a mobile-friendly website exists. The app is guaranteed to do less, to require an installation and updates and frankly, to represent a level of “intimacy” and “commitment” I am not ready to have with many brands. Besides, CSS and HTML5 are making the mobile web virtually indistinguishable from apps. Case in point: we recently implemented geo-location on our mobile-friendly retail audit software using HTML5 only and it works great. I think the days of apps are numbered. A mobile-friendly website and launch icon is all (most) customers need and want.

Jonathan Marek

Look, I get why retailers want me to use their app. But think about how many retailers I shop. Even if the apps have utility, how many will I really download? For me, only Starbucks makes the cut thus far.

If only there were a way to use a single app to access great functionality across retailers, now that would be cool.

Matthew Keylock
Matthew Keylock
4 years 19 days ago

I’d focus on delivering what customers (and prospects) want and need. Likely this requires both an app and a site.

I agree with many of the comments made already so won’t duplicate.

I will add …

For both to stand-out and engage the customer, they should match content with individual customer needs. With the app, this ought to be simple via the sign-on. However, few apps really do this beyond just my stored facts or details and so currently underwhelm! With sites there is now quite a lot that is possible to customize even if personalization is a step too far.

Retailers struggle because:

  1. most don’t really know their customers beyond generalizations to be able to make these experiences personal and relevant.
  2. most can’t justify investing more than the minimum in a hard-to-quantify development like this.
Vahe Katros

It’s only an opportunity if you’ve found an opportunity. Otherwise, good enough will buy more time until the industry makes this question moot.

Kenneth Leung

Retailers need to incorporate features not available on mobile web to their apps to make them compelling. Mobile apps have the ability to access the environment data of the handset such as location, date/time, and other features to develop new capabilities and user experiences. For example, an app can detect whether the user is in the WiFi range of the store and if the user opt-in automatically connects and downloads data. An app can tell how far the closest store is and how soon it closes, and provide transit data. We are seeing startups push the envelope on that capability; not as much by retailers.

Shilpa Rao

I see the findings in this article as a no surprise. With the smartest of phones, my battery draining with data usage, I do not let the apps run in the background and it’s too much a hassle for me to download and manage too many apps of all the retailers I shop with. The mobile sites are crappier version of the full site and the browsing experience for that matter, even with Amazon, is not that great.

Retailers have a long way to go in terms of utility and having the features to make me want to use them. Among the lot, I like the Home Depot app for its utility.


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