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?

Bill Siwicki

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"It's an improved experience relative to the out-of-date mobile site," Geller says.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.

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.

So, guess what Paul Fredrick is testing today? That's right, responsive design. It's working with design and testing firm Monetate Inc. to take sections of its desktop site, transform them with responsive design, and dynamically serve those pages to subsets of consumers, while serving traditional desktop site pages to other consumers. Bausher says it's too soon to analyze its results.

"We're still at the very beginning stages," she says. "We're not thinking of an 'm-dot' site again. We may go down the responsive route. There is not a magic formula that says if you follow these steps you will have a great mobile site."

Moosejaw Mountaineering figured things out years ago. In 2011, it became one of the first retailers to launch a responsive design site. A year after it launched the responsive site, Moosejaw found its smartphone-based sales were 10 times greater than sales on its old mobile site. In December 2013, 21% of web traffic came from smartphones, 16% from tablets and 63% from desktops; the breakdown for revenue was 8% smartphone, 15% tablet and 77% desktop, the company reports.

But there's more to the story. Moosejaw got a surprise. Immediately after launching the responsive site, there was a surge in mobile Google searches for the phrase "Moosejaw standard site." Suddenly a number of Moosejaw customers were revolting against responsive design on smartphones.

The number of searches for that phrase increased 60% during the 2013 holiday season, says Eoin Comerford, president and CEO of Moosejaw Mountaineering.

"We discovered order tracking on our responsive site on smartphones was not very user-friendly," Comerford says. "The pages do not render as well as we would like. We're working on that now."

Moosejaw responded to the searches for "Moosejaw standard site" by placing a View Full Site link on the responsive pages served to smartphones. Touching that link suppresses the smartphone version of the responsive site and serves the desktop version. Today, 1.7% of Moosejaw shoppers on smartphones touch the View Full Site link.

"With the earlier mobile site, we as web designers assumed these are the functions the users want, so then we cut things out," Comerford says. "We thought people on smartphones did not need reviews on the product page, that there wasn't enough space for alternate views, that zoom would be too much. You try to take things away to make it easier and quicker for the user."

But Moosejaw discovered mobile consumers want those features and functions.

"After all, there is a reason we put those features on the desktop to begin with," Comerford says. "All of those things are needed for the consumer to make an educated choice about the products they are buying. If you take those things away, that hurts your ability to convert."

QVC, the third-biggest m-commerce merchant, according to the 2014 Internet Retailer Mobile 500, is another retailer that found its m-commerce site lacking and decided to move to responsive design. All of its site pages from checkout on are now responsive. It will roll out responsive versions of the rest of its pages before the 2014 holiday season begins.

"It's critical no matter what path you take to mobile optimization that you not take things away from the customer," says Todd Sprinkle, vice president of content and platform innovation at QVC, where one-third of web sales are mobile.

When asked if responsive design is the answer to the conundrum of mobile shoppers choosing the mobile-unfriendly desktop site on which to shop, Sprinkle says not necessarily.

"I think responsive is an answer," Sprinkle says. "Really good mobile-first web design is the overarching answer to that question. Some people have done beautiful jobs with mobile-specific sites, but some people have taken their desktop site and degraded it. If we as retailers really want to serve the customer of today, we have to build for the smaller screen first and then make adjustments for bigger and bigger screens. Our goal is to account for every platform, leading design with mobile."

Many retailers and m-commerce experts agree that serving shoppers on smartphones full desktop sites is not a viable path forward in today's increasingly mobile world. They also agree that first-generation m-commerce sites for smartphones went too far in trying to streamline and quicken mobile shopping. To improve shopping for mobile consumers, and increase sales in the mobile channel, retailers need to replicate desktop shopping on the small screen. And a quickly increasing number of retailers are placing their bets on responsive design.




In-store mobile payments

Many experts in the payments and mobile technology industries foresee a day when consumers will use their smartphones to pay for purchases in stores. But consumers, according to the Retail Systems Research survey, are not in any hurry. The survey finds that among smartphone owners:

"Retailers will not invest in mobile payments until consumers are excited about mobile wallets, and consumers will not be excited about mobile wallets until retailers can guarantee mobile wallets are safe," says Nikki Baird, a Retail Systems Research managing partner. "Recent hacks and huge security breaches at retailers like Target are feeding the fire. Consumers perceive mobile as a less secure environment than the desktop. But really, in most ways, they are using the same exact systems to make financial transactions."

Tracking a consumer's location

Many mobile commerce experts say location-based marketing can reap many rewards for retailers. But will consumers allow companies to track their movements via smartphone?

"If they can see direct value for themselves, either making their lives easier or saving them money—and I would provide greater emphasis on making lives easier—then retailers have a much greater chance at being able to track consumers," says Nikki Baird, a Retail Systems Research managing partner.

Retail Systems Research m-commerce survey methodology

In late 2013, Retail Systems Research LLC surveyed 1,006 U.S. adult consumers on their mobile shopping habits. 49.2% owned a mobile phone, 2.8% owned a tablet, 43.6% owned a mobile phone and a tablet, and 4.4% owned neither. 65% of mobile phone owners owned a smartphone.

22.0% of survey respondents were 18-29 years old, 24.6% 30-44, 29.4% 45-60, and 24.0% 60 or older. 53.4% were male, 46.6% were female.

9.0% of survey respondents have an annual income less than $20,000, 13.3% $20,000-39,999, 13.3% $40,000-59,999, 11.5% $60,000-79,999, 11.3% $80,000-99,999, 18.0% $100,000-150,000, 11.7% greater than $150,000, and 11.9% prefer not to say.


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