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To app or not to app: Should retailers invest in responsive sites or apps?

Many retailers remain unsure as to whether they should prioritise investment in apps or responsive websites. Drapers looks into the long-running debate.

River Island app

River Island app

River Island app

As retailers and brands desperately seek to stay ahead of the mobile curve, many are struggling with whether they would be better off investing their resources in separate app platforms or responsive websites that adjust to different screen sizes.

A Barclays bank survey of m-commerce shows that UK consumer retail spend on mobiles and tablets is forecast to hit £53.6bn a year by 2024, which would equate to 13.7% of all retail spend. Shoppers currently spend £9.7bn a year via smartphones and tablets. Sales made through apps account for 33% of retail spend on mobiles.

Sean McKee, Schuh’s head of ecommerce and customer services, says that although the footwear retailer does have an app, they are not a necessity for all retailers. 

McKee believes the decision about whether retailers should prioritise responsive websites or apps depends on the frequency of engagement they have with their customers: ”Responsive websites will attract the vast majority of customers and so cover the majority of needs, but an app is where your niche, most engaged customers will go to interact and shop.

”It’s easiest to prioritise responsive websites – they’ll keep most customers happy, deliver a decent, consistent experience at device level and offer a degree of future-proofing.”

However, he says luxury fashion, department stores, supermarkets and high-frequency fashion retailers “are obvious candidates” for prioritising apps because of the loyalty these platforms engender with shoppers. “If your business isn’t one of these, then the USP of the app should be clear. What does it do that a website cannot?”

He adds: “If we play with apps again – as, in the end, there is an engaged niche to go after – we must be clear about a purpose beyond transactions. That purpose must be interesting to our customers. We haven’t answered that question yet in a way that gives me confidence to proceed, and it’s always possible to identify lower-hanging commercial fruit.”

Jonathan Wall, group ecommerce director at Shop Direct, agrees that “retailers with large customer bases that [are more likely to make] repeat purchases” should be prioritising apps, whereas those “looking for non-repeat business, who are more focused on customers who are likely to make one-off purchases” should instead focus on responsive websites.

He adds: “New app functionality needs to match as closely as possible the features of their mobile site and should have things like biometrics and camera functionality to enable the customer to interact more effectively and therefore provide a greater user experience.”

Speaking at the Internet Retailing Conference in London last month, Martijn Bertisen, director of retail at Google UK, said: “When it comes to pure commerce, I think your site now is still more important. On apps you need to offer something more than retail alone, not just an ecommerce transaction. The best apps have utilities that make them ’sticky’ so people want to use them on a daily basis.”

Although all retailers wanted to talk about apps two years ago, for James Doyan, managing director of ecommerce consultancy Athito Retail, the future will not be about this platform for many.

“It’s important to have apps in the armoury – not having apps now would be a mistake – but in the next few years it will become less important,” he says. “If a retailer has an app now they should carry on. Don’t let it fall down, but spend the majority of your money on responsive websites with rich content to keep customers on there and increase dwell times.”

He also advises indies to stay away from apps due to the costs involved. “I would encourage them to spend money on SEO [search engine optimisation] and delivering content for current customers. Conversion is already high for indies because of loyalty and an app won’t generate more sales for them.”

Conversely, fast fashion retailer River Island is seeing a steady rise in in-app sales as this platform offers a faster way to browse and checkout on the go, but the retailer could not provide specific figures. Helen Colclough, ecommerce development manager at the retailer, says: “It’s a really specialist channel that people are driving towards.”

She adds: “Really it’s about where your customers already are. At River Island we have a very digitally savvy customer who is already pretty attached to their smartphone, so it makes perfect sense for us to have native apps as well as our responsive sites.

“Our customer, for example, loves to see the latest product first and have access to hundreds of styles we launch every week. We know they are out and about and for them having that ability to see what’s new at a glance in their pocket is a useful feature.”

She says retailers with physical stores in particular should have apps, as “the opportunities to harness the native technology in a store environment are endless”.

She adds: “Native features improve all the time, so ensure you’re coming up with great ways to really use these to benefit customers. Finding ways to make your app a true utility, rather than just another way of placing an order, is the key to keeping it successful.”

Nupur Manchanda, chief operating officer at consultancy Practicology, believes if a shopper is in the bottom of the funnel and shortlisting with intent to purchase, apps are leading the way and are easier to use on the go as the catalogue is already downloaded to the platform, while it’s simpler to refine shortlists.

However, if retailers are seeking to acquire more customers, she advises they focus on responsive websites, which can be used to raise a business’s profile in search engine results – because in April Google changed its algorithms to prioritise responsive sites in its search results on mobiles – and create a holistic brand image across all devices.

“If they are at ground zero and it’s a question of what to do first we tend to say focus on responsive websites because you get a more joined-up experience,” Manchanda says. ”Having a responsive site means you don’t have two different priorities to manage, so efficiencies can be made.”

She adds: “A lot of brands with loyalty schemes see apps used quite highly, like House of Fraser.”

But she warns retailers can get carried away with “the surprise and delight mantra” within apps. While that’s important, what’s crucial is to offer convenience and ease of use.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • From a user point of view, apps are typically cleaner and more responsive and easily best for small screen devices.

    Plus, in my opinion, the future will be far more personalised and seamless to a level where buying in store and from home is complementary to the other. Suggesting (the right) apps will dominate.

    That's before you even consider how an app can be designed to bring other 'in store' tech to life!

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  • I used to use shopping apps but not so much anymore. When shopping or browsing on my phone, I like to open a lot of tabs and compare but apps I used don't offer this functionality.

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