February 12, 2014, 10:04 AM

Staples holds off on responsive design to expedite mobile projects

The second-largest online retailer is responding to increasing shopper traffic on smartphones and tablets by rolling out a series of redesigned mobile sites and apps, a Staples executive says at the IRCE Focus mobile conference. Read more to learn how the chain has handled its rapid-fire mobile projects.

Lead Photo

Faisal Masud speaking at the conference

Staples Inc., the office supplies retail chain that is the world’s second-largest online retailer after Amazon.com Inc., doesn’t have time to lose in mobile site and app development, said executive vice president of global e-commerce Faisal Masud in a keynote address at the IRCE Focus: Mobile Commerce conference in Orlando, FL, today. His talk was titled “Mobile at the hub: How Staples is building a new cross-channel shopping experience.”

The need is urgent because more shoppers are visiting the retailer from smartphones and tablets every day, while the traffic volume into physical stores continues to decline, Masud said. “We’re seeing a big shift in our business going from stores to online and a combination of the two,” he said.  And customers who can’t quickly find what they’re looking for on mobile end up going to competitors’ sites.

In response, Staples over the last year has been rolling out faster, sleeker and more personalized desktop and mobile sites, Masud said. The retailer is also updating its smartphone app and tablet-optimized site, and this spring will launch its first iPad app.

Staples’ decision to build out and maintain separate mobile sites rather than use responsive web design to create one site that adapts to fit any screen size is somewhat unexpected, according to the buzz at the mobile conference. Masud says the retailer does have a long-term goal to begin moving all its sites into responsive design starting at the end of this year, but that launching one-off sites in the meantime is the fastest way to begin optimizing for the many customers who are already visiting Staples on mobile.

“As much as we want to go to responsive, there’s not time right now,” Masud said. “We have to fill a short-term gap where we have a lot of traffic going [to mobile].”

Shoppers who shop Staples in more than one way, such as from a smartphone and in stores, are more valuable than shoppers who do not, he added, without giving details. Today, between 60% and 70% of the retailer’s e-mails are opened on mobile devices, he said.

When optimizing for mobile, Staples did more than cut page elements and make the site easier for thumbs to navigate (although it did cut its mobile page load time from 7 seconds to less than 1 second). Based on a series of tests, the retailer realized it also had to highlight a different set of products for mobile shoppers versus those on desktops, Masud said. “Ink and toner don’t represent a large part of our business on mobile, though they do on desktop,” he said. What shoppers are seeking on mobile is electronics—so 70% of Staples’ catalog on the smartphone site and app are those featured products, he said.  

Part of the reason for that trend is that traditional office supplies like paper, ink and toner are being replaced by digital products, Masud said. It follows that a shopper using non-traditional ways to shop, such as mobile, would be less likely to want those items. Staples has recently expanded its product catalog to 500,000 SKUs in order to offer more business products beyond office supplies, he said.

The retailer is also making its mobile sites and apps more relevant to shoppers based on the usability test results. Rather than directing shoppers to where it wanted them to go on mobile, which previously meant to its store locator or rewards program information, the retailer first welcomes mobile customers with information about reordering items and product recommendations based on their past shopping histories, Masud said.

The forthcoming iPad app will help shoppers discover more of Staples’ new product offerings and capitalize on information the retailer has about shoppers’ changing browsing habits throughout the day, he said. For instance, tablet shoppers are more active in the evening compared to desktop or smartphone shoppers, he said. They also convert at higher rates, he added, without giving specifics.

Since their launch, the smartphone site and app redesigns have contributed to triple-digit increases in mobile sales and conversions, Masud said. The retailer has 1 million iPhone app users.

Being able to pull off such rapid-fire mobile projects in a short time frame required a massive reorganization within Staples’ I.T. department, Masud said. The retailer has launched two digital technology centers, which it calls labs, in Seattle and Boston. Attracting engineering talent to urban hubs like those is easier than to Staples’ suburban headquarters in Framingham, MA, he said. It has been hiring hundreds of engineers, including many from web-only retailers who can help the retailer to bridge gaps in creating and managing technology across stores and digital, he said.

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