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The Great App Debate

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If retailers are confused by mobile’s many options, add another conundrum: go with mobile-optimized websites designed to display correctly on mobile devices — or “apps” that must be downloaded onto devices?

According to mobile analytics provider CEM4Mobile Solutions, more people use mobile web, but engagement among app users is about 2.5 times higher. Respondents in a March 2012 Nielsen study said they prefer shopping on mobile websites; meanwhile, apps cost significantly more to develop and must be configured for various operating systems.

“Mobile web is the low-hanging fruit,” says Stefan Schmidt, vice president of product strategy for hybris, a multi-channel e-commerce software provider. “A mobile-optimized website is like the everyday car, while the mobile app is more like a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley. It gives you something you can’t get anywhere else.”

That is key to an app’s success, says Jon Kubo, chief product officer for social commerce company 8th Bridge. “If we’re just going to throw the catalog at customers and expect them to go through it, there is less probability that you’ll have the shopping experience catch on,” he says.

However, “Even if you do decide that an app is important for you, you still have to have a mobile-optimized site because there is still a significant part of the population that is not going to download your app,” says Sean Cook, CEO of e-commerce platform provider ShopVisible. “They may be … searching for you, so you want to make sure that you’re found, and that the experience they have is relevant to the [device] that they’re on.”

When to go native
How often consumers interact with your brand digitally will drive whether a mobile app is required,” says Rob Garf, vice president of product and solutions marketing for Demandware. “If you think about the travel industry, for consumers getting on a plane once a week, a native app purpose-built for checking on flight times makes a lot of sense.”

“For retailers [with] product categories that can be browsed and have high consideration sets, like electronics or apparel, an app tends to perform better, not only usage but conversions,” says Eric Tobias, president of iGoDigital, which focuses on helping retailers with personalization and user experience tools. “For other retailers [with] product lines that are less consideration-heavy,” or whose customers mainly want to look up prices and reviews, “mobile-optimized sites tend to be best.”

Apps are both a boon and a bane: Users must download the app in a version that’s compatible with their devices, which signifies a certain level of engagement with the retailer. But the delay that is inherent with an app’s download can dampen impulse buys.

“If I see a billboard of something I want to buy, by the time I download an app, I may not want it anymore,” Schmidt says.

There are environments uniquely suited for apps. The most recent version of Westfield Shopping Malls’ app, for instance, includes a product finder, integrating with Google Commerce Search to show customers where to find desired items throughout the mall — and the prices at each location.

“Nearly all of our top retailers are creating their own mobile apps, but they look at what Westfield does as complementary,” says Alan Cohen, Westfield’s executive vice president of marketing. “Everyone is always looking for that additional relevant exposure.”

Power of the collective
Pickn’Tell offers an application that allows shoppers to solicit feedback from friends on outfits. Partnering retailers can deliver coupons to customers and receive shopper metrics, and may also choose to have a special mirror installed that records the customer in the outfit, or install a barcode scanner that provides care instructions along with the video.

“As a retailer, having a mobile application allows a more immersive, more secure and more well-rounded experience,” says Mark Frieser, vice president of business development for Pickn’Tell. “The ability to create wish lists, purchase items, share products socially and the like are far, far easier on a mobile application than on the mobile-optimized web.”

Pickn’Tell helps retailers “learn more about shoppers and provide a constant connection between their brand and consumers,” says CEO Dalit Braun. “When the shopper is logged into an application, we know who you are, and what you are doing. And we provide a limited amount … of this information to the retailer, such as ‘female, tried this on and didn’t like it.’ This brings both the shopper and the retailer significant added value.”

The customer also has the opportunity to engage by answering a series of brief questions. “Retailers benefit from ‘immediate feedback’ about a wide variety of things such as level of service, quality and price,” Braun says.

Connecting the application with valuable business intelligence is vital to the success in the app world, but it’s not a common approach.

“In many companies, these different channels — whether online or mobile app or web-optimized store — can be treated as siloed business units,” Cook says. “Not only does the organization not have great coordination across these channels, the customer data does not coincide. That doesn’t work well from a business or customer standpoint if you have systems that can’t talk to each other.”

He offers as an example a customer who hears a radio ad, looks the product up on his smartphone and saves it to a wish list, returning later to learn more and make a purchase. “It seems like a fairly simple thing to the customer. But a company has to be able to give the attribution of those channels so they can realize that ‘I heard the ad, looked at the product on a smartphone, put it in the cart.’

“The important thing to note is that it solves the question, ‘What of my marketing and connection points are working?’” Cook says.

Where apps and mobile web are headed
Over time responsive design — which makes a website display correctly no matter whether it is viewed on a desktop, phone or tablet — will make mobile-optimized sites more dynamic and usable. But Garf believes hybrid is something to keep an eye on in the meantime. “Hybrid apps have been architected in a way that the application can draw on some of the differentiated mobile capabilities such as geo-location, camera and other tools,” he says. “This space is moving quickly.”

“What’s happening across the Internet is the curated experience, an activity feed of what your friends and social network think is interesting,” says Kubo. “Mobile will go to the same types of personalized experiences. … User-generated content gives us long-tail abilities to find someone’s preferences.”

Schmidt sees a day when every product can become involved in selling. He cites his washing machine, which is Internet-connected and allows him to schedule a service call through the machine. “But why not purchase washing liquid through it? You can’t create for every new outlet a new process all the time, but the process of how you deliver the order and how you process the order do not really change because the device has changed.”

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