Start with a mobile site, then build an app, IRCE speakers say

Executives from Wine.com and Groupon explain their mobile priorities.

Amy Dusto

Should a retailer build a mobile site or a mobile app? The short answer is “it depends,” say David Katz, vice president and general manager of mobile at daily deals operator Groupon Inc., and Cam Fortin, vice president of web-only wine seller Wine.com.

The two of them shared their views at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago 2013 on Friday in a session titled, “M-sites vs. apps: When does a site work and when is an app the better approach?”

Katz said that where a retailer’s shoppers come from should determine the type of mobile development to pursue. If more customers visit a retailer after finding its web site in a search or after clicking on links in display ads or e-mails, a mobile web site is probably the better bet, he said. Mobile sites cater well to the occasional visitor, who is unlikely to download an app, and to those who arrive via e-mails because a retailer can easily create unique landing pages for those messages’ links.

With more than 50% of Wine.com’s customers making one-time, impulse purchases, Fortin said that developing primarily for the mobile web is his business’ best use of time and money. Although Wine.com has an iPad app that allows customers to browse wines and learn about the wineries from which they come, the mobile site is less expensive and easier to maintain with his in-house developers than the iPad app, he said.

Conversely, retailers who use push notifications on mobile devices—reminder messages from an app that pop up on the device’s home screen—to bring in most of their shoppers could benefit more from a mobile app, Katz said. For example, Groupon makes high use of push notifications to remind shoppers when a new daily deal posts, he said. Groupon has apps specific to 42 countries and available for iPhones, Android phones, Windows phones and BlackBerry devices, and in both tablet and smartphone versions, he said.

Apps also often load and operate faster than mobile web sites and they allow richer functionality–such as maps, scrolling content and unique features, Katz said. For example,  Groupon’s apps  make it easy to redeem coupons in a store with a single click on her mobile phone. Additionally, he said, if customers like apps enough, they store them on the home screens of their mobile devices and therefore see them frequently.

Over time, apps’ ability to out-perform mobile sites will diminish, Katz said, as new methods of developing mobile web sites allow developers to build “app-like” functionality for the mobile web, along with comparable performance and loading times. Those methods include responsive web design and HTML5 coding, which allow a mobile web site to detect the screen size of the device a consumer is using to browse the web. Then the site automatically adjusts the display to load and arrange content on each web page to best fit the device—for example, perhaps on a computer the page loads product images in an array but on a smartphone it lists them in a vertical, scrolling format. “Responsive web design is the future of web design, and we’re all going to go there,” Katz said.

While Fortin agreed that mobile apps can give retailers an effective way to reach and engage customers, he said that retailers should focus on building mobile web sites. That’s partly because they give consumers the ability to maintain their online shopping carts across different devices. More than 30% of Wine.com’s  annual revenue stems from customers making purchases from a different device than the one where they started shopping. Without a mobile web site, customers would not be able to continue a shopping session from a smartphone while they’re on the go, he said.

Keeping apps up to date is also a challenge, Fortin said—Wine.com must ask its vendors to make updates, which generally takes weeks of back-and-forth approvals between the retailer and the vendor. As a result, Wine.com updates its app only every six months or so, he said. In contrast, it updates the mobile web site every two weeks. Any in-house developer who can build for the web can also build for the mobile web, he said. And because mobile site updates are so much simpler and faster, the retailer also tests new features on it before adding them to the app, he said.



Cam Fortin, David Katz, e-commerce technology, Groupon, HTML5, IRCE 2013, m-commerce, mobile app, mobile commerce, mobile site, push notifications, responsive web design, site design, Wine.Com