Mobile Shopping Is on the Rise, But Remains Split Between the Mobile Web and Apps

Consumers are more comfortable with mobile commerce

Consumers have clearly warmed to the idea of making transactions on their phones. Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Mobile’s influence on shopping behavior has been on the rise since the advent of the smartphone, but recent data indicates consumers are becoming more comfortable finalizing transactions on their phones.

In fact, Forrester’s 2018 Retail Best Practices: Mobile Web study found smartphones will be used in over one-third—or more than $1 trillion—of total U.S. retail sales at some point in the process of buying something in 2018, including research, price comparisons and purchases.

And, according to data from Google Analytics from June to September 2017, over 40 percent of online transactions were made on mobile devices. Further, 46 percent of respondents in a December 2017 study from Google and consulting firm Heart+Mind Strategies said they prefer to use their smartphones for the entire purchase process.

In 2012, U.S. consumers spent $7.8 billion in retail purchases on their smartphones, according to Forrester data. By 2016, this figure had grown to $60.2 billion and Forrester anticipates it will reach $93.5 billion in 2018—and $175.4 billion in 2022.

These figures are a clear sign consumers have warmed to the idea of making purchases on their phones. That, however, puts even more pressure on brands to improve their mobile and/or app experiences, which, in turn, are shifting the nature of brand loyalty. If consumers’ shopping expectations aren’t met, they will go elsewhere.

For example, Google research showed that 73 percent of consumers will switch from a poorly designed mobile site to an alternative mobile site that makes purchasing easier. And two-thirds of smartphone users are more likely to purchase from brands whose mobile sites or apps personalize the experience based on their location, such as displaying a nearby store where a product is in stock.

Consumers use mobile search in particular to find advice about the brands they should buy and for more details about specific products. In fact, Google found mobile searches containing the word “brands” increased over 80 percent from 2015 to 2017, and mobile searches for “top or best X brands” increased over 95 percent.

In addition, Google data shows more than 150 percent growth from 2015 to 2017 on mobile in searches ending with “to avoid”—as in “olive oil brands to avoid,” “refrigerator brands to avoid” or “tire brands to avoid.” The study also found more than 80 percent growth in searches on mobile for “is X worth it.”

And, Google said, shoppers are increasingly turning to mobile for inspiration. In that same two-year period, there was a 55 percent increase in mobile searches for “ideas”—“$25 gift ideas,” “outfit ideas,” “bathroom remodel ideas”—and a 150 percent increase in mobile searches for shopping lists.

But, like in-store shopping and traditional ecommerce, the customer journey remains fragmented.

Google and Verto’s Mobile Shopping Journey study found the average mobile shopping experience includes at least six visits to an app or mobile site and the use of at least three categories like search, shopping or social. And 46 percent of mobile shopping includes at least one transition between the mobile site and the app.

Brendan Miller, principal analyst at Forrester, said fragmentation exists because mobile shopping is often done while multitasking, and it also includes in-store price comparisons.

“There’s this influence that mobile has on purchases made in-store,” Miller said. “[There’s] tremendous influence that the mobile experience has on in-store purchases, especially large ticket items.”

Mobile web v. apps

When researching and comparing products, studies say consumers prefer the mobile web to apps.

Google found consumers are using mobile sites for shopping because apps still have to earn a spot on their phones.

According to the Google and Heart+Mind Strategies study, 68 percent of respondents said they do not need an app to learn about, browse or make purchases from a brand on their phone; 87 percent said they can be loyal to a brand without having the app on their phone; and 63 percent said when a brand forces them to download their app to access a deal, they will typically delete it shortly thereafter.

Similarly, PwC’s Total Retail Survey 2017 advised brands to invest in a mobile site rather than an app.

“We like to say a retailer’s app is only for its most loyal customers,” Miller said. “Only the most loyal will go to the trouble to download and use it … but when it comes to actually researching products, they prefer the mobile web.”

However, when it comes to making an actual purchase, Miller pointed out, Forrester found consumer preference is split 50/50 between the mobile web and apps.

Within the app economy specifically, app data and analytics firm App Annie’s 2017 retrospective found digital-first retail apps like Amazon’s saw more than twice the average sessions per user each month than apps from brick-and-mortar retailers, and they generally saw stronger growth over the past two years.

Lexi Sydow, senior insights analyst at App Annie, attributed this in part to digital players like Amazon prioritizing mobile.

But brick-and-mortar retailers can make up lost ground in part by integrating frictionless checkout, such as the ability to check out as a guest or with services like Apple or Google Pay, and by making the value of using an app clear from the outset, Sydow said.

App Annie’s Mobile App Retail Report also recommended improving search capabilities to provide an accessible search bar, visual search capabilities and relevant search results as search converts at a rate 2.6 times higher than non-search for purchases in apps.

Miller said there’s also a huge opportunity on the mobile web to improve the customer experience by creating more app-like experiences. This includes eliminating extensive form fills, streamlining the checkout experience and ensuring site speed is optimal.

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.