March 3, 2014, 11:28 AM

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

Nearly half of shoppers on smartphones ditch retailers' m-commerce sites for the desktop version of merchants' sites, new research shows. Why? Because merchants have yet to find a winning formula for mobile design, experts say. Is responsive design the answer?

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Consumers don't like mobile commerce sites. In fact, 49% of shoppers on smartphones leave retailers' m-commerce sites to shop merchants' full desktop sites on their smartphones, according to data exclusive to Internet Retailer from Retail Systems Research LLC, a research and consulting firm that follows mobile commerce.

Does that mean that all the work retailers for years have put into optimizing and streamlining web sites for mobile shoppers was pointless?

No, experts say. Keep in mind, 51% of consumers use mobile sites to research and buy, RSR finds. What has happened, retailers with long experience in m-commerce and mobile experts contend, is merchants have dumbed down their mobile sites so much in a quest to make things fast and simple that many mobile shoppers don't have the tools they need to learn more about products and make informed buying decisions. These shoppers are then left with no choice but to touch m-commerce sites' View Full Site links to find what they need on the traditional desktop sites.

Some retailers have taken m-commerce design's inherent challenges to heart. For instance, Nordstrom Inc.-owned flash-sale e-retailer HauteLook shut down its m-commerce site for smartphones in early 2013 after determining the site lacked too many of the desktop site's features and functions, says Mark Geller, the retailer's head of mobile. It then made minor tweaks to its desktop site so the site would work better on touchscreen mobile devices, and began serving the desktop site to all mobile shoppers. Revenue from shoppers on smartphones increased tenfold. Management was shocked.

"It's an improved experience relative to the out-of-date mobile site," Geller says. "However, we definitely are committed to creating a new, well-optimized, up-to-date mobile commerce site for our members on the web on smartphones. It is an important thing for us to do. Shopping a desktop site is not the answer for smartphones."

Mobile commerce now accounts for more than half of the HauteLook's total web sales, and smartphone sales are about double tablet sales, Geller adds.

Retailers and m-commerce experts agree that shopping a desktop site on a smartphone is not an ideal experience. They point to the success that hundreds of retailers are having with m-commerce sites—459 merchants in Internet Retailer's 2014 Mobile 500 offer such sites. They're also quick to add that those same retailers can achieve even greater mobile sales from existing mobile customers, and capture the interest of the 49% of mobile consumers who ditch mobile sites, by enhancing their m-commerce sites to include more of the features and functions already included on their desktop sites.

The Retail Systems Research data reveal mobile shoppers want mobile sites to be personalized, they want mobile sites along with desktop sites and in-store systems to know who they are as they bounce from channel to channel, and they want mobile sites to better serve them in physical stores. The RSR study also examines smartphones versus tablets, in-store Wi-Fi, in-store mobile payments, location tracking and other m-commerce subjects.

Some retailers, such as HauteLook, QVC Inc., Paul Fredrick, The Sportsman's Guide Inc. and Moosejaw Mountaineering, have already figured out their first stabs at m-commerce sites were insufficient. They have launched or plan to launch new m-commerce sites with more features and functions. Or they've shifted to use responsive web design techniques in which a merchant builds a single site with one code base and one set of web content that is able to render differently to fit any screen size.

"On mobile sites and in many mobile apps, I am not seeing everything I want to see to help me make a choice," says Nikki Baird, a Retail Systems Research managing partner. "In the pursuit of making mobile commerce simple and fast, retailers have lost parts of the shopping experience many consumers are looking for."

For example, Baird says many retailers' mobile sites and apps act too quickly to narrow the number of choices so there are fewer images, all in the name of faster page loads.

"As a wireless data consumer, I appreciate lighter pages; but as a retail consumer, I feel I am not seeing all of the selection I want to see," she says.

Steve Rowen, a Retail Systems Research managing partner who focuses on mobile commerce, offers another example of desktop functionality missing from most mobile sites: the ability to purchase a gift card.

"When you think about what an easy transaction that is for retailers to fulfill on a small screen, it's a big miss by retailers," Rowen says. "Couple that with how strong the relationship is between the type of people shopping on mobile devices and the type of people who buy last-minute gifts, namely gift cards, skipping the ability to buy gift cards on a mobile site becomes a pretty serious faux pas."

Customers must be able to do on mobile commerce sites and apps everything they can do on desktop e-commerce sites, says Mark Williamson, senior manager of digital vendor marketing at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.-owned Sam's Club.

"In the past, we oversimplified mobile," Williamson says. "Customers want it all—anytime, anywhere. Otherwise they will abandon."

Nearly all retailers with m-commerce sites detect that a device requesting a web page is a smartphone then automatically redirect that smartphone from the desktop site to the mobile site. All of that happens in the blink of an eye and a smartphone user never sees anything but the mobile site. Buried at the bottom of most m-commerce site home pages is a link that reads something along the lines of Visit Full Site, giving shoppers on smartphones the option to shop the site they know from their desktop shopping.

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