March 3, 2014, 11:28 AM

Why consumers hate mobile sites (and what you can do about it)

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But HalloweenCostumes.com takes a different approach. Rather than automatically redirect smartphone users to its mobile site and include a View Full Site link on the mobile home page, when HalloweenCostumes.com detects a smartphone requesting a web page, the retailer displays a window asking the mobile shopper, "Would you like to view our mobile site?" If a shopper touches OK, she is sent to the m-commerce site; if she touches Cancel, she is sent to the desktop site.

Half of HalloweenCostumes.com's mobile shoppers choose the desktop site, the other half choose the mobile site, reports Troy Eaves, the retailer's vice president of marketing.

"The mobile site is a little clunky and does not have all the features and functions of the desktop site," says Eaves, who adds the e-retailer is testing design enhancements to create a richer, easier-to-use mobile site. "We have a lot of repeat customers who simply are more familiar with the desktop site."

The conversion rates for mobile site shoppers and shoppers on smartphones using the desktop site are about the same, Eaves says. However, time on site is much higher for smartphone shoppers using the desktop site. Ironically, Eaves says this is probably because shoppers using the desktop site on smartphones have to pinch and zoom and swipe to navigate the site, and that takes time.

"Ultimately, we'll probably move to responsive design to better serve all customers on all devices," Eaves says.

Pottery Barn also treats mobile differently than most retailers. If a consumer types PotteryBarn.com into her smartphone's mobile web browser, the chain retailer automatically redirects her to its m-commerce site. However, touching select links in Google search results leads shoppers on smartphones to full desktop site pages. Pottery Barn then displays a button that reads View Mobile Site on top of the desktop pages, which is contrary to the common approach that displays a mobile page with a View Full Site link at the bottom. Pottery Barn may be running tests to determine the best way to serve mobile customers. The retailer declined to comment.

As part of the Internet Retailer-exclusive research, Retail Systems Research asked consumers to agree or disagree with some statements about mobile shopping. Two results may point to where retailers' mobile sites are lacking. For example, "Retailers should use past purchases to inform personalized recommendations and discounts": 41.3% of consumers agreed, 32.3% disagreed and 26.4% were neutral. And, "I want my favorite retailers to know who I am online, mobile and in-store": 29.9% agreed, 37.8% disagreed and 32.3% were neutral.

"The more specific or timely or location-based a retailer can be, the more likely a consumer is to say, 'Yes, I want that from my retailers,'" Baird says. "That is the key to unlocking personalization for retailers—the more value they can deliver and the greater the relevancy from a context perspective, the more willing consumers are to engage with retailers on a more personal basis."

Several retailers with extensive m-commerce experience tell the same story: their first mobile site was lame, the second mobile site is much better, but responsive design is probably the ultimate answer.

Today the two primary ways to serve consumers using mobile devices to access the web are to build separate, stand-alone sites for desktops, tablets and smartphones, or to build a responsive site to fit any device. Two other methods, adaptive design, which is very much like responsive design with server-side capabilities, and dynamic serving, which is very much like separate sites though without multiple URLs, are also gaining some attention.

Responsive design, though, is what is capturing many retailers' attention. The number of top retailers in m-commerce with responsive sites went from a handful in 2012 to 39 last year, according to the 2014 Mobile 500. And at the IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce conferences last month in Orlando, Fla., responsive design dominated the discussion, with many retailer speakers and attendees saying they are planning to move to responsive design, or considering it.

Tim Arland, senior vice president of e-commerce at The Sportsman's Guide, says back in 2010 a high percentage of web visitors on smartphones left the e-retailer's first-generation mobile commerce site and shopped the desktop site on their smartphones.

"The big finding was that you have to make sure the user experience is consistent between the desktop and mobile sites," Arland says. "That first mobile site just wasn't working. It was one of those things where you see a popular solution out there, a lot of companies using it, so you jump on it. But it did not meet our customers' needs."

That led the merchant to create a second- generation mobile site that more closely resembled and functioned like the desktop site. It tested the new mobile site against shoppers on smartphones using the desktop site. The result? The mobile site had a significantly higher conversion rate and a higher sales-per-visit figure.

However, like a growing number of retailers, The Sportsman's Guide will release a responsive design site in the summer. The merchant will test the responsive site against the mobile site, and will move forward with the winner. But Arland is pretty confident about what the results will show. "I think responsive is the ultimate answer," he says.

Men's apparel chain retailer Paul Fredrick tells a similar story. In 2011 it launched its first m-commerce site, which performed poorly. A significant number of customers on smartphones abandoned that mobile site and shopped the desktop site. In 2012 Paul Fredrick dumped its mobile site and served its desktop site to shoppers on smartphones, and saw a small jump in conversions.

The mobile site's checkout was too different from the desktop site's checkout. And its default view of products could be sorted only one way, unlike on the desktop, where the default view of products could be changed day to day, for example, to highlight promotions, says Amanda Bausher, the retailer's senior marketing manager, web user experience. 14% of Paul Fredrick web traffic stems from smartphones, 14% from tablets and 72% from desktops.

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