Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Stores must buy into mobile
A view from Andrew Walmsley

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Stores must buy into mobile

Consumers' desire to interact with retailers via the channel is abundantly clear, so they should react.

Eight out of the top 10 online retailers in the UK now have mobile websites, according to an exhaustive study carried out on my Android smartphone this morning. Recent figures show that the UK is the fastest-growing mobile retail market in Europe; but outside the top 10, retailers are still lagging far behind consumers in grasping the impact that mcommerce will have on the sector.

Across the five leading European markets, the number of users accessing online retail websites on a smartphone has increased 80% on the previous year, with the UK up 163% against May 2010, according to comScore.

The driving force behind this is handset sales. In the US, more than half of handsets sold are smartphones, and about 468m will be sold worldwide this year. Every four weeks in the past year in the UK, 2.5% of feature-phone users have switched to a smartphone, and Kantar expects 50% of people in the UK to own a smartphone by the middle of 2012.

So consumers are voting with their feet, or fingers, or whatever. It's when they start using these devices, however, that some of the effect on retail starts to show. About 9.2% of UK smartphone users are using online retail sites on their devices, though comScore's research only shows 'access' to the site, not whether they bought anything.

The number is still significant, though, because mobile users are quite different in their objectives from PC users. Several retailers report that the most-accessed area on their mobileX site is the store locator, which forms part of a pattern of behaviour on mobile retail sites, as consumers use them to comparison shop. There's a good chance that the consumer is already on the high street when they make this query, so answering the question easily is important, if the interest is to be converted into footfall.

Mobile visitors to retail sites are highly aware comparison shoppers; 5.7% accessed 'shopping guides' and 10.5% have used online auction sites. Assuming that 'shopping guides' mainly means price-comparison sites, this is a group that's using a mobile not just to shop, but to shop around.

So why do easyJet and Apple not have a website optimised for mobile? Fans of iOS claim it's because the mobile Safari browser is so good at rendering ordinary websites. This is nonsense. Optimising content for mobile reflects two important considerations; the size of the screen, and the purpose of the user. Mobile users are often there for a different reason, and no matter how good you are at pinching and tapping, a site optimised for that screen will get you to what you want much faster.

It is an odd omission from Apple, but it is perhaps not the first time it has demanded you do it the Apple way, or not at all. It is odder still from easyJet, one of the first airlines to exploit the web as a direct sales channel, but which seems slower to market in a channel particularly well-suited to its product.

Just as the web struggled to get taken seriously in its early days, scraping by on tiny budgets, many businesses seem now to be adopting a wait-and-see approach to mobile.

Back then, there was an excuse; websites were an expensive investment. Now though, a mobile-optimised website is relatively cheap. The barriers have never been lower; and since consumers couldn't signal more clearly that they want to engage with retailers via mobile devices, it's surprising that so many businesses feel comfortable being so difficult to access.

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist


- ComScore, a leading digital research agency, released the latest figures from its MobiLens service on the use of smartphones at the end of July.

- The data showed that 13.5m users across the five top European markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK), accounting for 5.8% of all mobile subscribers, accessed online retail sites in the three months to May 2011.

- The UK displayed the most growth for users accessing auction sites (up 95%) and users accessing shopping guides (up 71 %).

- The growth coincides with a strong increase of 56% in smartphone ownership in the UK in the past year.

- The UK was the only one of the five countries where mobile browsers did not completely dominate apps in driving access to mobile retailers.

In the UK, 11.6% used apps to access online auction sites, while 10% used a mobile browser to do so. However, 11.8% of UK users used browsers to access online retail sites, compared with 7.9% using apps, and browsers were also the preferred method of accessing online shopping guides.

- Jeremy Copp, comScore Europe vice-president for mobile, says: 'With mobile browsers still driving mobile retail activity, retailers should look to develop a mobile-optimised website, if they haven't already.'

Source: comScore MobiLens, July 2011