February 3, 2014, 12:18 PM

A major new phenomenon in e-retail: Customers who only use mobile

About one-third of online shoppers at the top 10 retailers as measured by monthly unique visitors shop only on mobile devices, comScore finds. This places even more pressure on merchants to build strong m-commerce sites and apps, an analyst says.

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A new phenomenon emerged over the course of 2013 in online retailing, one with profound implications for merchants big and small. Exactly one-third of online visitors to the sites and apps of the top 10 retailers as gauged by total monthly unique visitors only use mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) to shop those merchants online, according to new December 2013 data from web and mobile measurement firm comScore Inc.

For retailers, optimizing for mobile shoppers—be it a mobile commerce web site or responsive design site, and possibly a mobile app, as well—is table stakes today; otherwise, retailers will not be able to convert a huge chunk of their online customers who only visit on mobile devices, says Andrew Lipsman, vice president of marketing and insights at comScore. And mobile-optimized sites and apps must have everything a customer needs from the desktop site that helps her make a buying decision, Lipsman adds.

“While we’ve had smartphones and tablets for years now, in the past year the online behavior of consumers has changed in a major way,” Lipsman says. “Better mobile shopping experiences, improved mobile connectivity and faster wireless data speeds are factors that have driven this change. You can browse just about as efficiently on a mobile device as you can on a desktop PC, you just have a smaller screen. And now, the majority of time consumers spend online with digital media, and as a subset, with online retail, occurs on a mobile device.”

Amazon.com Inc. is the No. 1 online shopping destination with 178 million monthly unique visitors—29% of those visitors only shop the e-retailer via mobile devices, comScore says. Target Corp. is the No. 4 online shopping destination with 66 million monthly unique visitors—43% of those visitors only shop the merchant online via mobile devices, comScore says.

Among the top 100 digital media properties, which includes retailers, Groupon is profoundly mobile. Ranked by percent of monthly unique visitors that is mobile-only, Groupon comes in at No. 1—72% of its visitors in December 2013 used only mobile devices to shop, comScore says. Another retail site broke into the top 10: 65% of visitors to coupon site RetailMeNot only used mobile devices, comScore says.

More than 50% of Groupon transactions occurred on mobile devices in September 2013 in North America, the company reports. Groupon believes that makes it the first large-scale e-commerce company in North America that is predominantly mobile. Internet Retailer research backs up this assertion when it is couched in terms of “large-scale” e-commerce players. Some smaller e-retailers have surpassed the 50% mobile mark. Groupon Goods alone is No. 5 in the 2014 Internet Retailer Mobile 500. That just counts tangible merchandise; Groupon sells a variety of things via mobile, including daily-deal vouchers and travel.

“North American mobile customers continue to be more engaged than our web-only customers, purchasing more frequently and spending more,” Groupon says.

More than 60 million consumers worldwide have downloaded Groupon’s mobile app, including more than 9 million in Q3 2013 alone, Groupon says. The Groupon app for Apple Inc.’s iOS is one of the 25 most downloaded free apps of all time, according to Apple Inc.’s iTunes, which operates the company’s App Store. Groupon limited its comments to its most recent mobile statistics, it says, because it is preparing to release its Q4 2013 earnings.

At Target, two-thirds of all customers own smartphones, and make tremendous use of them, the company reports. On the 2013 Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday holiday weekend, half of all digital traffic at Target stemmed from mobile devices, the company says.

“We know that today’s consumers are time-pressed and increasingly tech-savvy,” says Jason Goldberger, senior vice president of Target.com and mobile. “As our guests rely more and more on mobile devices, we’re working to continue to make Target a leader in mobile commerce and marketing.”

For retail as a category, 14% of online shoppers in December 2013 only used mobile devices; and for the Internet as a whole, 8% of Internet users only used mobile devices, comScore says. Percentages for very large groups of Internet users will naturally be lower than those for specific retailers because of scale, Lipsman explains. There will be more overlap of the use of multiple devices with larger groups of consumers because overall typical Internet user is very likely at some point during a month to access the web on several computing devices. The millions of consumers who use a desktop PC at work to access the Internet will keep the multiple-device access figures for the web overall high, Lipsman adds.

The mobile-only demographic includes tech-savvy early adopters, low-income consumers who do not own desktop PCs and only access the web via smartphones, and Millennials and other young consumers, Lipsman explains.

Following are the top 10 retailers (ranked by total monthly unique visitors), total digital monthly unique visitors, desktop visitors (including desktop-only and desktop and mobile), mobile visitors (who also visited on desktop), mobile-only visitors (smartphones and tablets only), and percent of total visitors that is mobile-only, for December 2013, in millions, according to comScore (percentages are not exact due to rounding):

  • Amazon.com, 178, 127, 106, 51, 29%
  • eBay Inc., 103, 74, 58, 30, 29%
  • Walmart.com, 79, 53, 43, 26, 33%
  • Target, 66, 38, 38, 28, 43%
  • Apple Inc., 62, 44, 28, 18, 30%
  • Best Buy Co. Inc., 48, 30, 25, 18, 37%
  • Netflix, 46, 34, 27, 12, 27%
  • QVC (Liberty Interactive), 42, 26, 22, 16, 38%
  • Macy’s Inc., 30, 20, 13, 9, 31%
  • Kohl’s Corp., 29, 18, 15, 11, 38%
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