The mobile online shopping revolution is definitely coming—but nobody's sure when
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The mobile online shopping revolution is definitely coming—but nobody’s sure when


Will we ever really buy that much stuff through our smartphones? And does it even matter? 

The answer seems to depend on who you ask. 

By some tellings, growth in how much people buy through their smartphones is lagging projections and still underwhelms when compared to desktop; others see it as hitting transformative milestones that herald a new era of mobile supremacy. Still more say the dichotomy between the two is no longer even relevant.

“Mobile is a player in this whole digital world… but we can no longer think of it in isolation,” says Gartner mobile commerce analyst Gene Alvarez. “It’s really laying a foundation for other types of customer experience.”

Despite the sweeping rise of mobile on nearly every other segment of the web, online shopping remains one of the stubborn few areas where people still largely prefer their laptops or monitors to their phones or tablets.

The conventional wisdom has held that consumers oftentimes browse and research items on the small screens but turn to a computer when they actually pull the trigger on a purchase.

Yet at the same time, mobile’s share of retail sales has been growing at a rapid clip for years. And industry pundits have long envisioned a mobile commerce revolution in which smartphone shopping would become the new normal. 

It was always justaroundthe corner

Image: mashable/vengage

None of these takes were necessarily wrong. Mobile shopping did indeed outpace desktop sales in growth throughout the range of the above timeline and continues to do so.

But as the share of overall mobile traffic swelled at an average yearly pace of nearly 7 percent in the last half-decade, mobile shopping clocked less than half that rate at 2.7 percent, according to data from Statcounter and Comscore respectively.  

Consumers clearly weren’t as eager to start shopping on their smartphones as they were to do things like download games, browse the web, or post on social media. 

Surveys often chalk this reluctance up to the constraints of small screens, cluttered and clunky shopping sites that don’t translate well to phones, and payment security worries.

Image: mashable vennage Data: Comscore, statcounter (united states only)

But the sales growth metric alone doesn’t tell the whole story. In other respects, mobile shopping is actually overshadowing desktop. Two thirds of retail site or app traffic now comes from mobile, Comscore says, even though consumers are less than half as likely to buy something there.

The total number of transactions conducted on mobile also recently passed up desktop with a whopping two-thirds share, according to a report from Criteo last fall. Yet desktop is still king in total spend.

‘Not all things are sold equally’

Rates of mobile use vary widely across different types of products. 

As you might expect, people are much more comfortable buying smaller, less expensive items on their phones than they are, say, a piece of furniture.

“Not all things are sold equally,” Alvarez says. “I will buy something that is easily depicted and communicated to me on a mobile device—a book, a song, a video game—these are all very comfortable on mobile because I don’t need a lot of information. 

“A living room set is a whole different story,” he added.

Indeed, mobile sales of video games, consoles, and accessories; toy and hobby products; and jewelry have already passed up those on desktop, per Comscore’s latest data. Music and movies, flowers and greeting cards, and event tickets are all nearing an even split.

Image: comscore

Those disparities are reflected in a host of niche mobile-centric startups that have challenged legacy competitors in those smartphone-friendly categories.

Second-hand marketplace LetGo, for instance, is taking on Craigslist’s trademark hodgepodge site with a slick app that feels more like a messaging platform than an online store. The platform, which traffics mostly in small personal and household wares, now boasts a monthly active user base of around 20 million with about a quarter of Craigslist’s monthly visitor-ship. 

Image: mashable/vennage, data: CB Insights

Meanwhile, online diamond vendor JamesAllen.com raised $140 million last month on the strength of its 360-degree gallery-like display interface. CEO Dean Lederman said the company has tripled in size in the past two years with a millennial-heavy mobile audience.

“You can see the shape, color, and cut online the same way you can in a store—in some ways better,” Lederman said.

JamesAllen.com's mobile interface.

JamesAllen.com’s mobile interface.

While mobile apparel sales still only account for a little over a fifth of the category’s sales, fashion apps like Spring and Gilt are taking advantage of a general dearth of smartphone savvy among traditional clothing outlets with Instagram-like visual layouts.

Mobile retail platform Newstore recently analyzed the mobile shopping experiences of more than 100 legacy retail brands like Nike, DKNY, and Calvin Klein and awarded each a grade. The average came out to a “C-.”

“While consumers are living in a mobile-first world, the retail industry clings perilously to the past,” researchers wrote. “Most brands–even those with celebrated reputations for luxurious in-store experiences–are behind on the technology adoption curve.”

Despite the seeming potential in the mobile retail market, growth will always be fundamentally capped by the physical dimensions of phone screens. Even the most transformational technology would be hard-pressed to overcome the cramped display space for big-ticket items.

Screens of all sizes 

At the end of the day, the lesson many forward-thinking retailers are taking from this mixed bag of trends is that, at a certain point, shopping shouldn’t be seen as a purely mobile or desktop activity but rather as an experience that seamlessly encompasses all devices.

“Instead of thinking that one channel’s going to wipe out the other,” Alvarez said, “sellers need to be aware that the shopping experience has been deconstructed by the consumer and consumer technology, and we have to enable [consumers] to reconstruct it however they might want.”

Such a system could conceivably include not just desktop and mobile but also web-enabled internet-of-things devices and tech-outfitted physical stores.

“So I might be comfortable ordering laundry detergent from my mobile phone, but I may also let my internet-connected washing machine order me replenishment laundry detergent because I trust it,” Alvarez continued. “And my mobile phone might tell me about it and let me approve it.” 

It would require careful tracking of users across their various platforms, device-specific interfaces designed to complement their counterparts, and a firm grasp of consumer behavior borne through mass data collection. 

These are the types of considerations stores will face as they continue to push into the mobile frontier.

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May 24, 2017
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