PupLife.com executives are wagging their tails over responsive design

Mobile sales are up 88%, smartphone conversion is up 111%, the e-retailer says.

Bill Siwicki

One year after switching from conventional web design to responsive web design, PupLife.com executives say they are thrilled with the results. Comparing August 2012 (the last full month before going responsive) with August 2013:

“Shoppers are becoming reliant on their phones as an ‘always at the ready’ product research device,” says Eric Houtkooper, president of PupLife.com. “We also switched to a mobile-friendly layout for all of our e-mail campaigns, so if you are checking your e-mail on your phone, our newsletter looks very nice. But the customer may not always be in a ready-to-buy mode when visiting via mobile. Many PupLife customers do their initial product research on a smartphone—for example, checking for collar styles and colors during their lunch break—and then they re-visit PupLife.com in the evening, often converting on their desktop, or increasingly, their tablet.”

Responsive design enables a retailer to build a single site using a single set of web content and a single code base and have the site display in a way that it fits the size of screen the visitor is viewing, be it on a desktop, smartphone, tablet or smart TV. This is in contrast to what has been the more common path to mobile commerce on the web, building a separate site optimized for smartphones and possibly also building a tablet-optimized site. 459 retailers in the newly published 2014 Internet Retailer Mobile 500 have a smartphone-optimized m-commerce site, 34 retailers have a tablet-optimized site, and 39 retailers have a responsive design site.

“We did the right thing with the move to responsive design,” Houtkooper says. “It helped with smartphones and tablets; but surprisingly, with desktops as well.”

PupLife.com executives are not disheartened by the low conversion rate on smartphones. They say on the one hand, smartphones in large part play a special, non-transactional role in m-commerce today, as a source of information, and on the other hand, tomorrow, smartphones will generate more sales.

PupLife.com has always been a site that features a wide variety of content, such as dog training tips and dog health articles, that is informative and helpful to dog owners, and the pages featuring this content do not include a hard sell on products because the e-retailer wants to be a trusted authority, Houtkooper says.

“Many of these smartphone visitors come to the site searching for a specific answer to a question; for example, ‘How do I get my two dogs to get along?’” he explains. “If they find the answer on our site, they might also see products at the bottom of the page or sign up for our newsletter. These are long-term customer acquisition plays, and down the road, they come back to our site and convert—but not always on their phone. But we think this will change as people become more comfortable shopping via smartphone.”

The merchant uses the Shopify web commerce platform, which targets small retailers and builds sites based on templates and themes. Houtkooper says it cost PupLife.com a mere $150 to switch to a responsive design theme, built for Shopify by the U.K. web design firm CleanThemes.

“However, as any Internet retailer will tell you, the most valuable resource of all is time,” he says. “We did have to invest a decent chunk of time optimizing the code and graphics for the theme to look and respond the way we wanted it to. But you’ll find that with any e-commerce platform. The folks at CleanThemes offered fantastic support and quickly implemented the changes we wanted, such as a larger search box.”

Typically the cost to build a responsive design site is far more than $150 and a chunk of staff time, but it varies widely depending on the size of a retailer, whether a retailer builds the site in-house or through a vendor, and whether a project involves entirely recoding a site from scratch. A mid-sized retailer might spend $50,000 through a vendor while a large merchant might spend $1 million on a complete site overhaul, mobile experts say.

Houtkooper says PupLife.com executives are big fans of usability testing, and usability testing on mobile devices will help the company boost mobile sales.

“We’ll be looking at our data to identify areas where we lose potential mobile customers before checkout, and then improve that funnel,” he says. “Having an actual human being in front of you, using a phone to surf your site, can bring in lots of useful information.”

To peers who are skeptical of responsive web design, Houtkooper says that’s fine—but they’ve got to do something to address the wildly increasing number of mobile consumers.

“Certainly, responsive design has worked for PupLife,” he says. “Does that mean that it is the answer for every site? I can’t say. However, the needs of the customer have become clear. They want constant access and that often means via a smartphone while they are on the go, or a tablet at home or at the coffee shop. If your site is hard to read and not optimized for a great experience on all platforms, you might lose out to a site that is responsive, or at the very least, mobile-optimized.”


Eric Houtkooper, m-commerce, Mobile, mobile commerce, mobile design, mobile sales, mobile statistics, mobile traffic, PupLife.com, responsive design, responsive web design