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But even as retailers increasingly cater to smartphone users, some are looking past those phones and toward tablets, such as Apple Inc.'s iPad. A hefty 63% of retailers, for example, are considering redesigning their web sites so they render better on the iPad and other tablets, according to an Internet Retailer survey conducted late last year. Amazon simplified its web site last year in part so that it would be easier to navigate on tablets. And Staples last month launched an e-commerce site designed for tablet users.
The growth of tablet use has been just short of staggering for some e-retailers. "The Apple iPad is now the number one mobile device that people who use mobile use when coming to our sites," says Gordon Magee, director, Internet marketing and media, at online pet supplies retailer Drs. Foster and Smith.
On the retailer's main e-commerce site, nearly 49% of the mobile traffic originates from iPads, far more than the second place mobile traffic source, the iPhone, at 19%, and far above the 2.7% coming from the Kindle Fire, Amazon's tablet computer. On the retailer's LiveAquaria.com site—which caters to fish owners—the iPad accounts for nearly 34% of mobile traffic, with the iPhone second at 28%.
That surge in tablet traffic, which Magee says is probably the most dramatic recent shift in online shopping behavior at Drs. Foster and Smith, is changing the retailer's thinking. "There is less pressure to have a mobile-friendly site because today's tablets do just fine with a full web site," he says. "And a consumer's experience is better on the full web site than it is on the truncated mobile solution. Our response to this change is to be less in a rush to get our site optimized for mobile or to create an app."
Still retailers have to consider how tablets are changing where and when consumers shop. 50% of tablet owners say they prefer to shop from their couch, while 20% say their bed, according to rich media firm Zmags.
This will no doubt lead retailers to devise marketing and merchandising plans to capture the dollars of consumers shopping from those comfortable, cozy places, which can be a different experience than trying to hurry through a purchase during the lunch hour or while stopped at a red light, the mobile phone in one's lap. Online marketplace eBay is already trying to get ahead of this trend via a new iPad app that displays suggested products based on what a consumer is watching on television.
Online retailers had a lucrative year in 2011, and continue to put heat on their bricks-and-mortar rivals. But the size of the jump e-retailers make in the coming 12 months will depend in large part on how well they serve shoppers who want deals, and who want to shop on new categories of devices, at all hours of the day and night and even when tucked into bed.